Sewage samples reveal Americans, the Dutch among world’s biggest users of ‘party pills’

ADELAIDE, Australia — Who knew sewage could tell so much about a country’s drug habits? A new international study focusing on NPS (new psychoactive substances) levels in wastewater around the globe is providing unprecedented insight into designer drug use patterns across numerous nations. Researchers from the University of South Australia say, based on what’s in the sewers, people in the United States, Australia, and the Netherlands like to “party” the hardest.

Study authors analyzed wastewater content across various nations including China, Norway, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. The results revealed the use of “party pills” and “bath salts” is far greater in some countries than others.

“The Netherlands recorded the highest usage, followed by Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Spain, Italy and China had the lowest incidence of designer drug use in cities participating in the study,” reports UniSA analytical chemist Dr. Richard Bade in a university release. “Of the eight countries studied, only Norway showed no traces of NPS.”

NPS refers to any synthetic drug designed to mimic the effects of more established narcotics like MDMA, cocaine, and LSD. Study authors collected the sewage samples between December 2019 and January 2020. In all, researchers looked for 200 known synthetic drugs and discovered 16 substances in the wastewater.

Designer drug use is a global problem

bath salts drugs
‘Bath salts’ are one of the designer drugs in widespread use across Australia. (Credit: University of South Australia)

More specifically, the Australia team uncovered N-ethylpentylone in waste samples from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The substance has been around for decades and can cause fatal overdoses. Researchers also discovered mephedrone (whose street names include drone, M-CAT, White Magic, and meow meow) in samples from Australia and New Zealand. Notably, on New Year’s Eve, the study finds mephedrone usage spiked in New Zealand by 20 times the normal rate.

“It is a very powerful drug that produces effects similar to those of cocaine and MDMA and is popular among ecstasy and stimulant users in Australia and NZ,” Dr. Bade says.

The results also found ketamine in waste samples from every country in the report.

Another fairly new MDMA knockoff drug, eutylone, appeared in samples from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Study authors warn that high doses of eutylone can cause “intense and particularly dangerous side effects.”

Which drugs are Americans using?

The United States is the only nation showing signs of mitragynine and acetyl fentanyl use as well. Mitragynine contributed to nearly half of NPS-related deaths in 2019. Fentanyl, which has become infamous during America’s opioid crisis, also has a strong connection to rising U.S. drug fatality rates.

“What makes the NPS so dangerous is that they were originally sold as legal alternatives to conventional illicit drugs such as ecstasy and cannabis, suggesting they were safe when, in fact, there was very little information about their toxicity,” Dr. Bade adds. “Governments soon intervened after hospitalizations and fatalities were linked to these class of drugs with some countries enforcing blanket bans. However, despite these bans, NPS are still synthesized, transported and consumed across the world, often with fatal consequences.”

The study is published in Water Research.

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