Study of Wastewater From Nearly 50 Million People in Europe Suggests Rise in Amphetamine, Cocaine, Ecstasy and Meth Consumption

Researchers investigating wastewater in 68 European cities across 23 countries have found evidence to suggest a rise in the use of illegal stimulant drugs in 2019 compared to previous years.

A team of scientists in association with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) analyzed the wastewater of approximately 49 million people—in cities from Barcelona to Stockholm—for a one week period in March 2019, in order to shed light on the drug-taking habits of their residents.

In particular, the team were looking for traces of four illegal stimulant drugs: amphetamine, cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamine. By determining the quantity of drug traces in the wastewater, scientist can make estimates about the use of these substances in a given location.

"Wastewater analysis has demonstrated its utility over the last decade as an important new drug monitoring tool and a complement to more established monitoring methods," EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel said in a statement.

"By delivering almost real-time data on drug use patterns, both geographically and over time, this novel approach can offer a valuable snapshot of drug use in key cities in Europe and an insight into emerging changes in behavior."

"It is also showing promise in new areas, such as identifying, and estimating the use of, new psychoactive substances and assessing the outcome of interventions targeting drug supply," Goosdeel said. "As a method, wastewater analysis has moved from being an experimental technique to being an important addition in our epidemiological toolkit."

The researchers reported an overall rise in the detection of the four stimulant drugs compared to studies conducted in previous years, beginning in 2011.

Among the key findings of the study, the scientists identified an increase in MDMA residues in the wastewater of more than half of the cities tested. This may reflect how MDMA is no longer simply a niche or subcultural drug taken in nightclubs and parties, but one that is now used in a wide range of settings, according to the researchers.

"Of the 42 cities with wastewater data for 2018 and 2019, 23 reported an increase. The highest residues of MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, were found in cities in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands," the EMCDDA said.

For cocaine, there appears to have been an increase in use in 27 out of 45 cities, with the highest residues found in southern and western European cities, particularly those in the U.K., Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Residues of amphetamines increased in 21 out of 41 cities although there was significant variation across the continent.

Stock photo: Cocaine was one of the substances analyzed in the study. iStock

"The loads of amphetamine detected in wastewater varied considerably across study locations, with the highest levels reported in cities in the north and east of Europe. Amphetamine was found at much lower levels in cities in the south of Europe," the authors wrote in the study.

Finally, traces of methamphetamine—otherwise known as crystal meth—in the wastewater of most European cities appear to be very low to negligible, in contrast to the three previous drugs. Nevertheless, the team noticed an increase of residues in 17 out of 42 cities, while noticing that use was concentrated in select locations.

"Methamphetamine use, generally low and historically concentrated in Czechia and Slovakia, now appears to be present also in Cyprus, the east of Germany, Spain and northern Europe," the authors wrote in the study.