New developments in the use of chemical analysis of wastewater

Wastewater epidemiology

In ten years wastewater epidemiology has developed into a mature field of knowledge which provides objective data on the use of narcotics by the population. Now the methodology has been further developed and is also being used in forensic, public-health and anti-doping applications. It can also for example provide a picture of a population’s alcohol, sweetener and coffee consumption, or of its exposure to pesticides.

What is wastewater epidemiology?

Wastewater epidemiology collects data on human consumption and use of substances by conducting chemical analyses of the residues or transformation products of the substances in the wastewater. So-called 24-hour composite samples are collected from the influent entering a wastewater treatment plant using a special sampling procedure. The samples are then analysed for biomarkers, which are substances that – following the consumption of a substance – are excreted by people and end up in wastewater. The day’s load of such a substance is calculated by multiplying the measured concentration by the total volume of wastewater that flows into the plant over 24 hours. The load is then divided by the number of people connected to the sewer system. The data obtained on the level of use per person make it possible to compare the situation in different cities. The method has up until now been used primarily for inventories and to establish geographic and temporal trends for the use of narcotics.

New applications

A number of new applications of wastewater analyses have very recently been tested and published. Examples among many include comparisons of alcohol, nicotine and caffeine consumption in different countries, the determination of human exposure to pesticides in eight European cities, and a measurement for the level of oxidative stress, which moreover is correlated with tobacco use.

Detecting illicit use, doping and drug labs

KWR is closely involved in these developments and has even devised and tested three new applications. The first is used to demonstrate that pharmaceuticals that are only available with a prescription are also purchased by illegal means (internet) and used.

The second relates to doping among amateur athletes. Wastewater samples are collected before and during several sports events, such as bodybuilding competitions, in the cities where they take place. Significant increases in the concentrations of dangerous slimming agents/diuretics can be detected in the wastewater during the course of the events.

The third application is useful to forensic research: when (illegal) drug laboratories discharge their waste a range of compounds end up in the sewer, creating a profile – actually a kind of fingerprint – of the synthesis process used to produce the drugs (mostly amphetamine or ecstasy). KWR research has demonstrated that such fingerprints are indeed perceptible in the wastewater and can assist in tracing the laboratories.

The expectation is that wastewater, which after all contains a treasure of chemical information and therefore constitutes a mirror of the society, will be increasingly used in the future, for example to determine the health and hygiene status of cities.

Ana Causanilles earns doctorate

On Thursday, 24 May, former KWR staff member Ana Causanilles successfully defended her thesis, titled ‘Wastewater-based epidemiology, an analytical chemical approach for the investigation of human consumption of lifestyle chemicals’, in the Agnietenkapel of the University of Amsterdam. During a lively discussion with her external examiners, Ana demonstrated her knowledge in the field of wastewater chemical analysis. The wastewater data she collected shed light on the use and consumption of all sorts of substances by the population. Ana’s research focussed mainly on the use of hard drugs, doping and illegally acquired pharmaceuticals. Her research showed for instance that amateur athletes use the dangerous slimming agent dinitrophenol during bodybuilding events, and that the erectile dysfunction agent sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra) is procured and used on a large scale in the Netherlands without prescription.


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