There's an old saying that one man's trash can be another man's treasure. Now, researchers have taken that philosophy and applied it to toilet waste -- finding a way to use the excess as a helpful resource for monitoring communities' patterns of illegal drug use.
But the research is still in its beginning stages, and State College is not yet considering using it.
In the past year, researchers have been working to develop a quick and efficient method of analyzing wastewater to detect traces of illicit drugs, said Jennifer Field, lead researcher and professor in the department of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University (OSU). The purpose of the analysis is to monitor drug-use trends in communities, she said.
The findings of the research were reported at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston last month.
"The ultimate goal is to provide information [about drug-use trends] over time and space and across different municipalities," Field said.
Wastewater from 10 U.S. cities was tested. The names of the cities are not being released because the researchers' focus was on evaluating the effectiveness of the method itself, and the testing is "only preliminary," Field said. The outcomes were "definitely a proof of concept," she added.
The screening process Field and her research team has been developing is an adaptation of a method currently used for similar testing of drug traces and metabolites, she said.
According to a press release issued by the American Chemical Society, the current method identifies byproducts of drugs by determining their molecular weights. But the process -- tandem mass spectrometry -- is a lengthy one that requires concentrating the samples to be able to detect any drug they might contain, according to the release.
The new method has modified the existing process, which originated in Italy last year for similar screening processes, and involves the ability to use samples with lower concentrations to complete the testing in just 25 minutes, Field said.
A variety of illicit drugs -- including methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD and ecstasy -- can be detected using the new method, and "legitimate drugs" like methadone and caffeine are also detected as a means of comparison, Field said.
The State College Police Department has not used wastewater screening methods to track drug use trends, but instead has evaluated the community's drug use by analyzing data obtained from crime reports, said State College Police Lt. Tom Hart, a criminal investigation division commander.
"We're constantly evaluating [instances of drug activity] to keep a handle on what we believe is a drug problem in the community," Hart said.
According to data from the State College police, instances of drug arrests increased about 28 percent from January 1997 to December 2006. The second most common drug charge during the 10-year span was for possession of a small amount of marijuana. The first most common charge was possession of paraphernalia.
Because Penn State students comprise a large portion of the State College community, they are considered temporary residents and are factored into the evaluations of drug activity in the area, Hart said.
Although he said he is aware of the method of using wastewater for drug-trend tracking, Hart said he would need to see more "scientifically sound" evidence of the method's effectiveness.
"At this point, I think the research is so infantile that I don't think anybody today would be saying we're missing the boat on this," he said.