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Toilets tattle on drug users

Amos Chapple | Getty Images

Your toilet might unwittingly be narcing on you.

Researchers in both the United States and Europe have been dipping sensors into wastewater looking for evidence of drug use, according to an editorial published in Nature News.

When the human body processes drugs — even alcohol — it produces various metabolites that show up in human waste. For example, the prescription drug Ritalin, used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, produces a byproduct in urine called, fittingly, ritalinic acid. This can be measured in public water systems.

A group of scientists at a private college in Washington found evidence students were using performance-enhancing — typically prescription — "smart drugs" during exam times, according to chemicals found in dormitory sewage, according to a 2013 study cited in the article.

And another study in the journal Forensic Science International suggested that wastewater analysis may be a tool for identifying drug supply chains. The process is far from perfect, but it might be good for painting a broad picture. For example, sensors measured metabolites for heroin in the sewers of Lausanne, Switzerland. Subtracting the amount of morphine prescribed to patients in tested areas gave an idea of how much heroin was in circulation. When paired with other police information, the data led to the arrests of local dealers.

Read the full article in Nature News.

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