Drug testing far from a waste(water)

Hanging around wastewater treatment plants is not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is serving as an important drug testing role nationwide. Credit Christine und Hagen Graf https://bit.ly/2TQGOHh

Imagine if you were given the job of studying the nation’s wastewater? No thanks, we can hear you say, although we think it’s fair to say that the people from the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program don’t need get their hands too dirty to conduct drug testing on the water.

The National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program, as the name suggests, uses wastewater to test for levels of illicit and licit drugs. The program has been running now for well over three years and in that time has unearthed some interesting findings from city and regional areas of Australia.

The 11th report has just been released. Its findings are from drug testing carried out during April and June 2020 and covering around 56 percent of the population, some 13.1 million Australians. Some of the key national findings include:

  • Capital city cocaine and heroin average consumption is higher than regional consumption.
  • Regionally, average consumption of nicotine, alcohol, methylamphetamine, MDMA, MDA, oxycodone, fentanyl and cannabis is higher than in cities.
  • Of all the drugs detected, alcohol and nicotine not surprisingly are the most consumed drugs, while methylamphetamine is the most consumed illegal drug. This is somewhat surprising, as most evidence places cannabis as the most used illegal drug in Australia. It’s also a concern, as the effects of methylamphetamine are generally more significant than cannabis.
  • Another interesting insight of the most recent wastewater drug testing is the impacts of COVID-19. In regional areas, methylamphetamine and heroin usage have gone up, while in city areas there’s been an increase in cocaine, cannabis and nicotine. Balancing this, regionally there has been a drop in fentanyl usage, while in city areas oxycodone and alcohol consumption have gone down.
  • In one area in June 2020, average MDMA capital city consumption exceeded methylamphetamine consumption for the first time anywhere in Australia since the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program
  • Interestingly and vitally, a new focus of the program has been to detect COVID-19 in wastewater, to provide advice to health authorities of where COVID-19 may be located.

The wastewater drug testing program is led by The University of Queensland and The University of South Australia.

According to The University of Queensland’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences Director, Professor Kevin Thomas, the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program provides a clear picture of drug consumption across Australia in what is one of the most advanced programs in the world.

“It also supports our capacity to rapidly react to emergent needs and has played a crucial part in successfully developing a wastewater-based early warning system for COVID-19,“ Professor Thomas said.

University of Queensland’s Dr Ben Tscharke explains that to conduct the drug testing, the monitoring teams use an instrument that allows them to separate the different chemicals to determine drug concentrations.

“We can identify which drugs are present in the wastewater, accurately measure the level of drug consumption and pinpoint areas that have the highest consumption. We look for drug use patterns emerging over time and how drug consumption changes when seizures by law enforcement occur or drug use policies change,” Dr Tscharke said.


Hanging around wastewater treatment plants is not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is serving as an important drug testing role nationwide.

By Michael

Michael is the founder of Integrity Sampling and is responsible for overseeing all national operations. He is based at Integrity Sampling's head office in Melbourne and is also responsible for the co-ordination of drug and alcohol testing within Victoria, assisting in the implementation of drug and alcohol (fit for work) policies and the presentation of drug and alcohol education and awareness programs. You can connect with Michael Wheeldon on LinkedIn

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