Open Access Highly Accessed Research

Cocaine in surface waters: a new evidence-based tool to monitor community drug abuse

Ettore Zuccato1*, Chiara Chiabrando1, Sara Castiglioni12, Davide Calamari2, Renzo Bagnati1, Silvia Schiarea1 and Roberto Fanelli1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Environmental Health Sciences, Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research, Via Eritrea 62, 20157 Milan, Italy

2 Department of Biotechnology and Molecular Sciences, University of Insubria, Via Dunant 3, 21100 Varese, Italy

For all author emails, please log on.

Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source 2005, 4:14  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-4-14

Published: 5 August 2005

Abstract

Background

Cocaine use seems to be increasing in some urban areas worldwide, but it is not straightforward to determine the real extent of this phenomenon. Trends in drug abuse are currently estimated indirectly, mainly by large-scale social, medical, and crime statistics that may be biased or too generic. We thus tested a more direct approach based on 'field' evidence of cocaine use by the general population.

Methods

Cocaine and its main urinary metabolite (benzoylecgonine, BE) were measured by mass spectrometry in water samples collected from the River Po and urban waste water treatment plants of medium-size Italian cities. Drug concentration, water flow rate, and population at each site were used to estimate local cocaine consumption.

Results

We showed that cocaine and BE are present, and measurable, in surface waters of populated areas. The largest Italian river, the Po, with a five-million people catchment basin, steadily carried the equivalent of about 4 kg cocaine per day. This would imply an average daily use of at least 27 ± 5 doses (100 mg each) for every 1000 young adults, an estimate that greatly exceeds official national figures. Data from waste water treatment plants serving medium-size Italian cities were consistent with this figure.

Conclusion

This paper shows for the first time that an illicit drug, cocaine, is present in the aquatic environment, namely untreated urban waste water and a major river. We used environmental cocaine levels for estimating collective consumption of the drug, an approach with the unique potential ability to monitor local drug abuse trends in real time, while preserving the anonymity of individuals. The method tested here – in principle extendable to other drugs of abuse – might be further refined to become a standardized, objective tool for monitoring drug abuse.