Seven new drug compounds, including substances which mimc MDMA and cocaine have been detected in Australian wastewater, a study has found.
The research from The University of Queensland’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences analysed wastewater samples during the New Year Period between 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22, where researchers said partying and drug taking rates increased.
The substances they discovered, dubbed new psychoactive substances (NPS) included were created to be like illicit drugs, however the slight difference in molecular structure mean they could “stay ahead of the law”, said University of Queensland researcher, Richard Bade.
“These substances are synthesised to replace banned substances, which means they have a slightly different molecular structure to stay ahead of the law,” Dr Bade said.
“They are generally manufactured in smaller quantities than traditional illicit drugs, making it difficult for law enforcement to control the circulation.”
In addition to Australia, the wastewater from 47 cities in Europe, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, China, Brazil and the Republic of Korea were also analysed.
“In Australia we found seven new psychoactive substances including mephedrone, ethylene and eutylone, which all have a similar effect to MDMA or cocaine,” Dr Bade said.
“We also found an increase in similar drugs in Europe, where there were high levels of 3-methylmethcathinone, particularly in Spain and Slovenia.”
The study said the wastewater analysis of these new drugs can help identify, monitor and control the risks associated with the substances.
“There is increased concern around music festivals, where NPS-adulterated drugs can be mistakenly consumed. This can increase the risk of overdoses, resulting in more emergency department presentations
Dr Bade said wastewater analysis was also a “cost effective and ethical way” to organisations and governments to monitor drug use trends, and the global movement of the substances.
“International wastewater surveillance can allow us to identify what new psychoactive substances are being used globally and how these trends spread across continent,” he said.
Surprisingly Covid restrictions had little effect on the drug use. Despite the sampling taken during the pre-pandemic period, and phases when countries were under heavy restrictions (2020-21) and lessening restrictions (2021-22) the study found “little difference in the total number of NPS detections”.
However levels were lower during the 2020-21 period.
In Australia, government-run pill testing at music festivals and fixed sites have been introduced in Queensland, after the ACT began a successful six-month trial was extended until August 2023.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said the tool was about “harm minimisation,” and didn’t promote drug taking.
“We don’t want people ending up in our emergency departments or worse losing their life,” Ms D’Ath said.
“It is important to note that pill testing services do not promote that drugs are safe, however they are among a suite of options that can positively affect outcomes regarding illicit drug use.
“Pill testing services will inform people what chemical substances are in their drugs.”
Originally published as University of Queensland wastewater study detect 7 new drugs in Australia