Water Journal : Current August 2017
www.awa.asn.au 36 authored the Ethical Research Guidelines for Wastewater-Based Epidemiology and Related Fields in 2016, which serves as the international guideline in this space. He said the main concern is that communities – especially in disadvantaged settings – could be negatively affected by media reports about the findings of studies. And it’s not much of a leap before misinformation makes its way into political discourse. “It’s better not to report the catchments from which your samples were taken because of the risk that the media will not report these well, not understand the findings or deliberately misrepresent them,” Prichard said. “It can stigmatise communities, which could lead to politically motivated decisions rather than evidence-based decisions about law enforcement.” The best way to protect communities is to anonymise the data in public reports and publications, he concluded. The NWDMP does this by coding the sites by number, but the question of how data will be reported is one utilities should ask before agreeing to participate in similar sampling projects. ANONYMITY AS AN ASSET It turns out these wide swathes of anonymous data fill a knowledge gap in current monitoring methods. Prichard pointed out that although monitoring systems are incredibly effective in assessing individual data, there are shortcomings to current methods. Recruiting for surveys is difficult because people are generally unwilling to talk about their substance use. It’s also time consuming to conduct one-on-one interviews, and researchers are dependent on the quality of information a person volunteers. Although wastewater studies can never deliver individualised information, they can deliver efficient, reliable data that can identify emerging trends in large populations. “Wastewater analysis is proven to be reasonably or very accurate with key drugs of concern, including methylamphetamine [ice], ecstasy, cocaine, tobacco and alcohol,” Prichard said. “It gives useful temporal trends on what the drug market is doing because of the frequency in which testing can be conducted, from which you get a macro-level picture. Agencies use a whole suite of strategies to try to reduce drug-related harm, and knowing what effect those strategies are having, if any, depends on the evidence we can marshal.” That information goes a long way to drawing the map of Australia’s drug habits – the first step in the difficult journey to change behaviours. To have any chance of succeeding, you need a good evidence base, Prichard said. WHAT’S IN IT FOR US? Broadly speaking, that’s the business that water utilities are in: creating benefit to society, more particularly community health. Aside from the NWDMP, some utilities participate in other demographic data projects within the confines of their own policies regarding research and collaboration. From an economic perspective, it is in their best interests to use the data available to provide value to customers. Sydney Water, for instance, doesn’t routinely collect demographic data, but it actively collaborates with other parties where studies are in the public interest, within privacy guidelines. Sydney Water Manager of Research Direction and Value Dr Michael Storey said that where the collection of data leads to better or more targeted products or services, there is an appetite to obtain demographic data. “We are always keen to better understand what customers value, and how we can better meet customer expectations and provide value for money,” he said. Mueller has seen a surge in utilities showing interest in participating in his ‘sewer census’ studies. He is currently looking at testing for biomarkers for health impacts due to high temperatures, exposure to harmful pollutants, and more. “We were hoping to get 30 wastewater plants, but word got out about what we were doing and in the end we got more than 100; since then we’ve had many more call,” he said. “T he uptake in the industry was mindboggling.” The next step? To prove the data have a direct benefit to society. Mueller and his colleagues are already working on a project to see if drug studies on wastewater can help communities in the fight against the drug ice. And with the opportunity to become better acquainted with their customers and to actively contribute to the research on community health, the water industry has already begun to embrace the benefits of these cross-disciplinary alliances. REGIONAL TASTES This first report of the National Wastewater Drug Mapping Program revealed Australians’ drugs of choice. Here’s a snapshot of some key findings: Wastewater analysis • Methylamphetamine was the highest illicit drug consumed across all regions of Australia. • Cocaine use was the highest in urban NSW sites, while NT rates of use were the lowest. • MDMA is not a popular choice apart from one regional site in TAS and a city site in NT. • Alcohol and tobacco use were the highest consumed across all states and territories. • Oxycodone showed up most often in regional VIC and QLD. • Fentanyl use in regional NSW, SA and WA was higher than the national average. • Psychoactive substances appeal to a niche market.
Current May 2017