New synthetic drugs, also known as new psychoactive substances (NPS), can mimic the effects of both illegal and legal drugs. They are often made in underground labs without consistent methods or ingredients, and the abuse of these substances can lead to overdose and death. NPS are tracked by forensic toxicologists, drug enforcement authorities, and public health officials, but their global popularity is hard to determine because each agency collects and stores their information in different ways, and not every user or dealer can be identified. In contrast, wastewater studies can provide comprehensive, consistent, and near real-time information.
Cobus Gerber, University of South Australia, Adelaide, and colleagues had used this technique to find out how popular various NPS were during the 2019/2020 New Year period. To evaluate the variability of NPS distribution and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers have tracked which drugs were prevalent during the 2020/2021 New Year holiday. The team collected wastewater samples from 25 treatment plants in ten countries in the days around January 1, 2021: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Fiji, Italy, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Spain, and the USA.
Using liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC-MS), the researchers checked the samples for 27 different NPS. Eleven of these compounds were detected, with only one site in Fiji having no measurable amount for any of the substances. The team found that most of the compounds were synthetic cathinones, also known as “bath salts.” Methcathinone, eutylone, and 3-methylmethcathinone (3-MMC) were detected most often and had the highest per capita levels in wastewater. However, methcathinone can be formed during the degradation of two legal decongestants, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Thus, the researchers were hesitant to link it only to illicit drug consumption.
When the researchers compared the 2020/2021 New Year period to the prior year’s holiday, eutylone and 3-MMC showed an increased international presence, despite COVID-19 restrictions affecting New Year’s Eve celebrations. For example, the team reports that 3-MMC was found in New Zealand for the first time. Overall, the work provides new insights into shifting global NPS consumption patterns.
- A Taste for New Psychoactive Substances: Wastewater Analysis Study of 10 Countries,
Richard Bade, Jason M. White, Maulik Ghetia, Santosh Adiraju, Sangeet Adhikari, Lubertus Bijlsma, Tim Boogaerts, Daniel A. Burgard, Sara Castiglioni, Alberto Celma, Andrew Chappell, Adrian Covaci, Erin M. Driver, Rolf U. Halden, Felix Hernandez, Heon-Jun Lee, Alexander L. N. van Nuijs, Jeong-Eun Oh, Marco A. Pineda Castro, Noelia Salgueiro-Gonzalez, Bikram Subedi, Xue-Ting Shao, Viviane Yargeau, Ettore Zuccato, Cobus Gerber,
Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2021.