By: Ophelia Buckleton

Researchers will soon test wastewater treatment plants around the country to identify trends and problems.

The researcher behind the first drug-testing of Auckland’s waterways is taking the study further afield to tackle drug and alcohol problems in small-town New Zealand.

The Massey University study, led by Associate Professor Chris Wilkins, will also include New Zealand’s first online alcohol and drug survey, set to be launched today.

Wilkins said the research was a response to community and drug treatment workers who have reported a lack of health services to deal with the increasing use of drugs including -methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoid in small towns and cities.

“At the moment, there are almost no statistics on what [the drug-related issues are]. So the problem for people living in those communities is they say ‘look we have got a really bad drug and alcohol problem here, but we’ve got no health or treatment services’,” said Wilkins.

“But when they try and make the case for more services, because they don’t have that data to back them up, they’re really stuck.

“We need some research to find out what is going on [in small towns] and then decide how we are going to reallocate resources.”

Researchers from Massey’s SHORE and Whariki Research Centre planned on testing wastewater treatment plants around the country, starting with the Bay of Plenty, to get a better idea of what substances are out there and at what level.

Testing can detect levels of drugs and alcohol from the substance itself and the metabolite – what the body excretes after the drug has been consumed – found in pooled sewage.

It is done at the inlet of a sewage treatment plant, meaning testing covers the entire community while guaranteeing no individual or household is identified.

Wilkins wouldn’t name all the areas where testing was set to be carried out, at the risk of stigmatising the communities, but said researchers would visit small towns as well as some main centres.

The testing would coincide with the nationwide online survey, which will ask participants a range of questions to identify recent drug trends, such as availability and price. It will also ask about gaps in health services and barriers to finding help in different communities.

Wilkins hoped the research would return solid data on drug and alcohol use and access to health services, that can be presented to bodies including the Ministry of Health and implemented into government policy.

“It’s not going to be possible to build a residential drug treatment facility in every small town and city in New Zealand but there will be a whole lot of options about how they might want to utilise health services,” said Wilkins.

Tests of the contents of Auckland’s sewers, carried out between May and July 2014, revealed high levels of methamphetamine, codeine, morphine and methadone in two wastewater treatment plants servicing 1.3 million people.

Methamphetamine was the most commonly detected drug of the 17 targeted – cannabis was excluded – with an overall mean of 360mg estimated to have been consumed per day per 1000 people.

The study was led by Wilkins and the SHORE and Whariki Research Centre, along with environmental toxicologists from Queensland University’s National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology.

The new study will run from this weekend until February 2018.

The online alcohol and drug survey can be completed from a smart phone, tablet or computer via https://drugs.shore.ac.nz, over the phone on 0800 554 101, or face-to-face with an interviewer on request, by texting the word “research” to 0800 554 101.

No names or contact details are required and everything said is strictly confidential.

Drug residue

Daily tests of two wastewater treatment plants in Auckland (which service 1.3 million people), carried out between May and July 2014, revealed:

  1. High levels of methamphetamine, codeine, morphine and methadone in both facilities.
  2. Methamphetamine, codeine, morphine and methadone were detected with high frequency – showing up in between 80 to 100 per cent of days over the sampling period – followed by amphetamine, MDMA and methylone.
  3. An overall mean of 360mg of methamphetamine and 60mg of MDMA, better known as ecstasy, was estimated to have been consumed per day per 1000 people.
  4. Methamphetamine was most commonly detected illegal drug in Auckland of 17 targeted – cannabis was excluded.
  5. Cocaine on the other hand was only detected in one catchment, and on only eight occasions.

Source: NZ Herald

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