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Popular Science had a fascinating story recently about a researcher — a sewage epidemiologist — who’s studying San Diego’s drug consumption by sampling the city’s sewage.

We had a Q&A over the weekend with a similar theme. If you missed it, we talked to a researcher who’s studying the effect that chemical contaminants, including those found in treated sewage discharged into the Pacific, are having on marine life along the coast.

The Popular Science piece begins this way:

Jorg Rieckermann snaps on a pair of purple rubber gloves, picks up a crowbar, and levers a manhole cover out of the way. “Here’s my access to the underworld,” Rieckermann, who speaks with a faint German accent, says as he hoists up a barrel-shaped robot suspended above a stream of raw sewage. Rieckermann’s protective gloves and orange jumpsuit are a sharp contrast to the parched brown backdrop of San Diego. But there’s no guarding against the stench. I can almost see the vapor, a rank blend of excrement and vomit that hits me like nuclear-strength smelling salts. If hell has a smell, it has found its way to this suburban portal, sandwiched between train tracks and a highway just outside the city limits. …

“Now, that’s a nice sample,” he says, holding up a plastic test tube full of sewage to the morning sun. “Liquid, plus particles — toilet paper, feces, sludge, slime.” Not to mention traces of cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin and any number of other illicit substances ingested, digested, and then flushed down the toilet. This spiked refuse is why we’re here. …

The approach is, in essence, a community drug test. By analyzing wastewater at treatment plants or at strategic spots throughout sewer systems, scientists can run extraordinarily accurate and anonymous tests on an entire population without ever asking anyone to hand over a cup of urine. (Everyone has to use the toilet, after all.) If, say, Philadelphia implements an ad campaign against methamphetamine, officials could gauge levels of the drug in the wastewater to instantly see if it’s working. Maybe San Francisco is considering building methadone clinics — does the data suggest they’re worth it? And if law enforcement wants to know whether drug busts are reducing consumption in certain neighborhoods, it could get an immediate answer.

ROB DAVIS

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