Sampling the Water to Estimate Cocaine Use

October 12, 2005

To estimate the amount of drug use in a population, researchers usually conduct surveys, interview people, check medical records or review crime reports. Such methods, however, may not measure actual drug use accurately because people may not tell the truth and drug screening is not always done on patients or people who are arrested. Italian researchers may have a better way to estimate drug use: measure the amount of drugs and their by-products (called "metabolites") in river and waste water.

Dr. Ettore Zuccato led a team of researchers who measured the amount of cocaine and benzoylecgonine (a metabolite of cocaine) in the Po River and in waste water in four water treatment centers in Italy. Approximately 5 million people live in the area around the Po River.

The researchers found that the Po River carried almost 4 kilograms of cocaine each day. The 4 kilograms of cocaine is equal to 40,000 doses (at 100 mg per dose) or 160,000 "lines" (at 25 mg per line) of cocaine each day.

Using these new data, Zuccato and his colleages estimate that cocaine use is much higher than thought before. Previous surveys of cocaine use in young adults estimated that there would be only 15,000 doses of cocaine each day. The new evidence points to the possibilty of 40,000 doses of cocaine each day.

The methods used in this study may be adapted to estimate the usage of other drugs of abuse. However, some drugs may be difficult to measure because they do not have stable metabolites. Also, any estimates based on water measurements cannot distinguish between drugs taken legally and illegally.

Reference and more information:
  1. Zuccato, E., Chiabrando, C., Castiglioni, S., Calamari, D., Bagnati, R., Schiarea, S. and Fanelli, R., Cocaine in surface waters: a new evidence-based tool to monitor community drug abuse, Environ. Health, August 5, 2005, 4:14.
  2. Cocaine - Neuroscience for Kids

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