Town Fighting Drug Epidemic Through Its Collections System

By monitoring wastewater for signs of drugs, Cary, North Carolina, hopes to gather more precise data that can help it combat the opioid crisis

Town Fighting Drug Epidemic Through Its Collections System

(File photo from LA Times)

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A collections system playing a role in the fight against drug abuse? That’s what is happening in Cary, North Carolina.

The town is setting up a system that will test wastewater from clusters of about 5,000 people to identify what drugs are being used. The data will be made available to outside researchers for analysis, and it could drive how the town goes about implementing programs to combat opioid abuse as well as monitoring how effective programs are.

“By identifying an area that has 5,000 or so people and capturing the wastewater there, we can add demographic indicators — socioeconomic, age and land use — to create a persona of that area,” Deputy Town Manager Mike Bajorek told The News & Observer.

Funding the project is a $100,000 grant through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ U.S. Mayors Challenge, which encourages communities to find new and innovative ways to tackle their most pressing problems. There is a chance to win as much as $5 million through the U.S. Mayors Challenge.

The basis for the project is a process used by Biobot Analytics, which did pilot projects in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, testing average numbers of doses of specific drugs, per person per day. In Cary, though, the goal is to get more targeted results.

“They had developed a way where they could test a smaller catchment area,” Bajorek told The News & Observer.

Wastewater sampling devices will be installed at 10 locations within Cary’s collections system to produce drug-use data for small clusters in the town of 160,000 people, but drug use won’t be able to be pinpointed to specific homes or individuals.

Opioid abuse has been a nationwide epidemic, affecting a variety of communities. According to Bajorek, last year Cary had 46 opioid overdoses, six of them fatal, which was a 70 percent increase from 2016. In the entire state of North Carolina there has been an 800 percent increase in lethal overdoses from opioids over the past decade.

“Cary’s innovative and experimental approach at monitoring wastewater is a potential game-changer,” Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht says. “It offers a new way to collect data to gauge the extent of opioid abuse in a community — rather than the number of overdoses — and puts the information in the hands of those who can provide pathways to recovery.”

Sources: The News & Observer; Bloomberg Philanthropies' U.S. Mayors Challenge



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