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Scientists Used Cellphones and Sewage to Pinpoint Neighborhoods With Drug Users

Published: September 21, 2017
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Source: VICE


It's entirely possible to analyze literal shit to estimate drug use patterns of whole cities. In fact, as I've reported before,wastewater drug analysis—sampling raw sewage for traces of illicit substances—is common practice in many parts of the world, including Europe, Australia, China, and parts of the United States.

But one of the biggest blind spots in this research is accurately estimating real time population size, which changes over the course of the year. (In statistics, this is known as censoring.) After all, the citizenry of a city like London can wildly vary due to factors like tourism and commuting—how do you know whose cocaine-soaked urine comes from whom?

A new study from the Norwegian Institute for Water Research suggests using mobile phone trace data to accurately peg population drug use—in other words, tracking cell phone pings and correlating them with how much MDMA is in the sewage.

"Cellular network connection counts can provide anonymized information on the movement patterns of individuals within a defined area," the researchers wrote in Environmental Science and Technology. "This provides for the possibility to normalize biomarker loads in each and every sample to an accurate (and dynamic) population figure corresponding to the period at which the wastewater sample was collected."

To test their theory, the researchers chose 13 narcotics, including amphetamine and Ritalin (methylphenidate), MDMA, methamphetamine, cocaine, and even carbamazepine, a pharmaceutical that treats schizophrenia. Last year, samples were collected from Vestfjorden Avløpsselskap, a wastewater treatment plant in Oslo, Norway that services about 600,000 people.

Samples were specifically taken in June and July because it would "result in significant changes in the catchment population," illustrating a worst-case scenario for this type of epidemiology. In Oslo, July is a major holiday month, which saw the average population drop 30.5 percent.


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