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ASU scientists turn to wastewater to determine drug presence in the city

A collaboration with the city of Tempe seeks to combat the opioid epidemic

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"Opiods may be found in Tempe's wastewater." Illustration published on May 31, 2018.

ASU scientists are determining how much of a drug problem the citizens of Tempe might have. Researchers have teamed up with the city of Tempe to detect the amount of opioids and other drugs in Tempe wastewater.

Adam Gushgari, a graduate student and postdoctoral researcher, said that they have been working with Tempe since early 2018, but this collaboration became public when they were awarded a grant from the city from the Tempe Innovation Fund.

Doctoral studentErin Driver does sample collection and processing for the wastewater based epidemiology in Rolf Halden' Lab. She has been working on wastewater based epidemiology for almost a year and a half. 

“We are kind of another branch of public health,” Driver said. “So we have the ability to sample and essentially near real time so we can turn things around in 24 hours. We have lower associated costs and an idea of what's happening on a community level and I think it is really important for understanding the opioid epidemic and potentially what we could do to help.”

Driver said researchers began a sampling campaign to establish a baseline about a week ago. 

Driver said that they had samplers deployed at six locations throughout Tempe. She said they took seven 24 hour samples throughout the week to estabilish.

“Wastewater is not all created equal,” Driver said. 

By having samples extracted from different locations, scientists will be able to determine which areas have a higher presence of drugs compared to others, and around different times.

Driver said that next month, they will begin their seven day sampling campaign. She said that every month they will start the samplers on a Monday and pick up samples Tuesday through the following Monday morning, with seven composites in every location.

Gushgari said he believes the most important thing to convey is that the privacy of the individual is protected in all the sampling that they do.

“This is the biggest question (and) this is the biggest obstacle that we run into when we talk about this project: as one city council member put it, ‘civil liberty concerns’,” Gushgari said. “Through our sampling we ensure that no individual could ever be identified or no specific location could ever be identified with a consuming of a specific drug. The data that we use is anonymous, but it is valuable and it provides near real time health related data while again, keeping the individual anonymous.”

Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Biodesign Institute, created what's known as the Human Health Observatory, which includes the National Sewage Sludge Repository. 

Halden said what they are doing is measuring the health status, behavior and activities in cities around the world using waste water with a radically new approach to managing public health.

“By looking at wastewater, we can identify threats early and try to eliminate those threats before they cause larger epidemics,” Halden said. “With respect to the opioid epidemic, our goal is to get a real time monitoring or real time dashboard on illicit drug use and opioid use for the city of Tempe.”

Halden said that this will help researchers understand whether any of the dimensions that they are implementing across the city are effective in reducing drug use. 

“Folks from the fire department and emergency response personnel already indicated they would benefit from this information by learning about the arrival of new and dangerous drugs in the city," Halden said.

Halden said that if emergency responders are aware of the presence of different, specific drugs in the city, it will allow them to be able to establish protocols and know how to deal with overdose situations by delivering the proper dosage of an antidote. This information has the ability to prevent additional overdose deaths in Tempe. 

Halden said this collaboration with the city of Tempe is unique.

“We will have a bi-directional data exchange,” Halden said. “So, we will provide data to the city and the city will provide data to us. We will try to analyze these together and also improve the monitoring network that we have developed for the city in order to get the best possible data for the locations that are most in need.”

Gushgari said there are a lot of moving parts that have to come together to allow for this analysis. 

“The theory behind the work that we do is very simple,” Gushgari said. “We can use this wastewater treatment plan as an indicator of community health."

Gushgari said that their plans right now are for a five year monitoring project, but he said this ideally will continue even after the project has ended.  

“The idea is that we could use this wastewater analytics not only to provide, as a pilot project right now just to get the insight, but to continue to use the technology as a metric, as a benchmark for community health in the future,” Gushgari said. “So, ideally this won't end — this will be implemented nationwide and be a common monitoring practice as time goes on.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @jessiemy94 on Twitter. 

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