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Trends in methamphetamine residues in wastewater in metropolitan and regional cities in south-east Queensland, 2009–2015

Foon Yin Lai, Jake O'Brien, Phong K Thai, Wayne D Hall and Jochen Mueller
Med J Aust 2016; 204 (4): 151-152. || doi: 10.5694/mja15.01054
Published online: 7 March 2016

Over the past several years, the Australian media have reported increased use and harm arising from the use of crystal methamphetamine (“ice”),1,2 a highly pure form of the drug that can be smoked or injected.2 We used wastewater analysis to examine trends in methamphetamine residues in wastewater samples from the inlets of two treatment plants in south-east Queensland. One plant served a coastal metropolitan city that included entertainment precincts and the other a major inland regional city.

Wastewater analysis is an approach to monitoring illicit drug use in the population,3 in which liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry are used to measure the concentrations of illicit drug residues in wastewater. We used drug-specific excretion factors and the de jure population from the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 census data for these catchments to estimate the amount of methamphetamine consumed by people who contributed to the wastewater samples.

We collected a total of 498 samples in the metropolitan city (2009–2015) and 712 samples in the regional city (2010–2015). Details of the sampling, analytical and back-calculation methods are described in the Appendix.

Methamphetamine consumption (measured in milligrams per day per 1000 inhabitants) was higher in the metropolitan city than in the regional city, and levels in both locations increased significantly between 2009–2010 and 2015 (P < 0.001) (Box 1). Consumption increased 4.8 times in the metropolitan area between 2009 and 2015, and 3.4 times in the regional city between 2010 and 2015 (Box 2).

Our results are similar to trends found in methamphetamine in wastewater in South Australia between 2010 and 2013.4 They are also consistent with increases in the purity of methamphetamine seized by police, arrests for methamphetamine use and supply, and the number of people seeking treatment for methamphetamine-related problems.3,5

Some caveats apply to our findings. First, the populations contributing to the samples in each area could not be determined exactly. Second, our data do not allow us to decide whether methamphetamine consumption has increased because there are more new users, because current users are consuming higher doses of a purer drug, or as a result of a combination of these possibilities.

We detected an almost fivefold increase in methamphetamine residues in wastewater in an urban city and a more than threefold increase in a regional city in south-east Queensland. These results demonstrate the potential value of wastewater analysis in providing timely data on trends in illicit drug consumption in the population of urban and regional cities.

Box 1 – Estimated methamphetamine consumption (mg/day/1000 people) detected in wastewater in coastal urban and inland regional cities in south-east Queensland

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015


Urban city

Range

173–353

246–526

142–978

254–1279

330–1511

566–1416

952–1401

Median

222

343

452

514

615

825

1062

Mean

234

363

467

553

599

839

1126

Coefficient of variation

23%

22%

31%

32%

31%

21%

14%

Regional city*

Range

73–188

69–229

64–448

61–492

188–485

318–518

Median

112

126

150

210

315

381

Mean

115

127

158

228

323

398

Coefficient of variation

20%

24%

33%

41%

23%

14%


* No samples taken in 2009.

Box 2 – Estimated methamphetamine consumption (mg/day/1000 people) detected in wastewater in coastal urban and inland regional cities in south-east Queensland, plotted in box-and-whisker and fitted trend with 95% confidence intervals

Received 17 September 2015, accepted 13 January 2016

  • Foon Yin Lai1
  • Jake O'Brien1
  • Phong K Thai1,2
  • Wayne D Hall3
  • Jochen Mueller1

  • 1 National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD
  • 2 International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD
  • 3 Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD

Correspondence: w.hall@uq.edu.au

Acknowledgements: 

We write on behalf of the Wastewater Analysis and Research Network, a multidisciplinary research team consisting of analytical chemists (Steve Carter and Shalona Anuj), a sewage engineer (Christoph Ort), an environmental public health researcher (Coral Gartner), a criminologist (Jeremy Prichard), a forensic scientist (Paul Kirkbride), a drug use epidemiologist (Raimondo Bruno) and a statistician (Melissa Humphries). The National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology is a joint venture of the University of Queensland and Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services. We acknowledge the financial support from the Australian Crime Commission and the Crime and Corruption Commission Queensland. We thank the regional council for the sampling opportunity. Jochen Mueller is funded through the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Phong K Thai was funded by a University of Queensland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and is currently funded by a Queensland University of Technology Vice-Chancellorboyuan;rsquo;s Research Fellowship. Jake Oboyuan;apos;Brien is funded by an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship.

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

  • 1. Australian Broadcasting Commission. Full coverage: Australia’s war on ice. 2015. http://www.abc.net.au/news/story-streams/ice-epidemic (accessed Sep 2015).
  • 2. Lee N. Are we in the midst of an ice epidemic? A snapshot of meth use in Australia. The Conversation 2015; 8 Apr 8. http://theconversation.com/are-we-in-the-midst-of-an-ice-epidemic-a-snapshot-of-meth-use-in-australia-39697 (accessed Sep 2015).
  • 3. Daughton CG. Illicit drugs: contaminants in the environment and utility in forensic epidemiology. Rev Environ Contam Toxicol 2011; 210: 59-110.
  • 4. Tscharke BJ, Chen C, Gerber JP, White JM. Trends in stimulant use in Australia: a comparison of wastewater analysis and population surveys. Sci Total Environ 2015; 536: 331-337.
  • 5. Degenhardt L, Larney S, Chan G, et al. Estimating the number of regular and dependent methamphetamine users in Australia, 2002–2014. Med J Aust 2016; 204: 153, 153.e1-153.e6.

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