Comparing illicit drug use in 19 European cities through sewage analysis

Sci Total Environ. 2012 Aug 15;432:432-9. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2012.06.069. Epub 2012 Jul 25.


The analysis of sewage for urinary biomarkers of illicit drugs is a promising and complementary approach for estimating the use of these substances in the general population. For the first time, this approach was simultaneously applied in 19 European cities, making it possible to directly compare illicit drug loads in Europe over a 1-week period. An inter-laboratory comparison study was performed to evaluate the analytical performance of the participating laboratories. Raw 24-hour composite sewage samples were collected from 19 European cities during a single week in March 2011 and analyzed for the urinary biomarkers of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis using in-house optimized and validated analytical methods. The load of each substance used in each city was back-calculated from the measured concentrations. The data show distinct temporal and spatial patterns in drug use across Europe. Cocaine use was higher in Western and Central Europe and lower in Northern and Eastern Europe. The extrapolated total daily use of cocaine in Europe during the study period was equivalent to 356 kg/day. High per capita ecstasy loads were observed in Dutch cities, as well as in Antwerp and London. In general, cocaine and ecstasy loads were significantly elevated during the weekend compared to weekdays. Per-capita loads of methamphetamine were highest in Helsinki and Turku, Oslo and Budweis, while the per capita loads of cannabis were similar throughout Europe. This study shows that a standardized analysis for illicit drug urinary biomarkers in sewage can be applied to estimate and compare the use of these substances at local and international scales. This approach has the potential to deliver important information on drug markets (supply indicator).

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amphetamines / analysis
  • Amphetamines / metabolism
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cannabinoids / analysis
  • Cannabinoids / metabolism
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Cities
  • Cocaine / analysis
  • Cocaine / metabolism
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Europe / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / analysis*
  • Illicit Drugs / metabolism
  • Population Surveillance / methods*
  • Sewage / chemistry*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry
  • Time Factors
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / metabolism


  • Amphetamines
  • Biomarkers
  • Cannabinoids
  • Illicit Drugs
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Cocaine