ASU using sewage to measure opioid use, abuse

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Raw sewage is being shipped from cities around the country to a lab at Arizona State University, as part of an effort to learn more about the opioid epidemic.

"The sewage doesn't lie," said Dr. Rolf Halden, the director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at ASU's Biodesign Institute.

A project Halden is overseeing at ASU is analyzing wastewater to learn more about public health.  

Dr. Halden has spent his career researching the effects of toxins and pollutants on different parts of the environment.

He says the urban water cycle can be used to diagnose a city and the health of its people.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Opioid crisis in Arizona]

"It's important to know what the health risks are in a community," Dr. Halden said.

Opioids pose a risk to communities across the country and are being targeted by local and state governments, as well as the Trump White House.

The ASU research aims to provide faster, more reliable data on opioid use.

The lab obtains pooled samples of raw sewage and then identifies concentrations of various opioids, including morphine, codeine, oxycodone, heroin and fentanyl.

Concentrations of opioids are measured and used to estimate the amount of drugs used in an area, the number of drug abusers and even the number of overdoses.

[RELATED: Do you have these drugs in your medicine cabinet?]

Samples of wastewater are turned into data in near-realtime. The goal is a 24-hour turnaround, from the wastewater treatment plant to analysis at ASU.

"If you simply ask someone about drug use, you're not likely to get an honest answer," Dr. Halden said, referring to self-reporting and other methods currently used to measure drug use.

[SLIDESHOW: Two Arizona counties have high opioid prescription rates]

Relying on self-reporting leads to uncertainty in the data. Privacy concerns and embarrassment play roles in people under-reporting drug use.

"Testing wastewater gets rid of that bias," Dr. Halden said.

"If someone takes it, and excretes it, we can track it," said Adam Gushgari, a Ph.D. candidate at ASU, who is conducting the research on "wastewater-based epidemiology."

The lab is receiving sewage shipments from 200 wastewater treatment plants, and looking for even more to participate.

ASU's contracts prevent the scientists from disclosing which cities are shipping sewage.

The samples arrive on dry ice, in styrofoam and immediately go into testing.

The sewage is pumped through a series of machines and concentrated to detect drugs.

[INFOGRAPHIC: Numbers paint grim story in Arizona's opioid crisis]

The final step involves a mass spectrometer, which measures the masses of particles and molecules to reveal the kinds and quantities of opioids present.

The usage data can be immediately reported back to local governments and first responders.

"We can inform them that a new dangerous drug has arrived. They can respond by ordering an extra supply of antidotes. This might save lives," Dr. Halden said.

Staff at the lab see their work as important to measure long-term trends as well.

"We can screen constantly, and use the data to figure out what programs are most effective [to combat the epidemic], and implement them across the nation," Gushgari said.

[INFOGRAPHICS: Opioid deaths in AZ by age, race, type of opioids]

Gushgari says most local governments are "eager" for the real-time data the lab is able to provide, but a few have been resistant.

"There are some people who'd sooner take an approach of ignorance. If you know you have a drug problem, it then becomes incumbent on them to do something, which costs money, time and resource," he said.

The lab has no intention of tracing the opioids back to the source to identify specific users.

"We're not law enforcement officers. We're just trying to save lives," Gushgari said.

The same technology can be used to measure nicotine, caffeine and other drugs.

It was first used years ago by labs in Europe to measure cocaine in lakes and rivers.

"It goes way beyond opioids. Overall, we're determining our health through our behavior. Better understanding what we do on a daily basis will improve overall public health," Dr. Halden said. 

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Jared DillinghamJared anchors the News at 8 on 3TV, and reports for both 3TV and CBS5.

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Jared Dillingham

Over his decade in Phoenix, Jared has reported for all shifts, and anchored both mornings and weekends.

Since moving to Arizona in 2008, Jared has covered everything from Senator John McCain's campaign for president, to the Jodi Arias trial, to the largest wildfire in Arizona history.

Jared grew up in New York, and graduated from Syracuse University with degrees in broadcast journalism and political science.

After internships at News12 Long Island and NBC in Washington, DC, Jared moved to beautiful "Big Sky Country." He spent a year at KRTV in Great Falls, Montana, before moving to KREM in Spokane, Washington.

The Valley has truly become "home" for Jared. He lives in Phoenix, and spends his mornings listening to as many news/political podcasts as possible, while walking his (now elderly) rescue dogs, Gabby and Bree.

On his days off, Jared can be found hiking Piestewa Peak or Camelback Mountain.

He also travels as much as possible and runs a blog with advice on visiting cities around the world.

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