Murray State Researchers Find Illicit Drugs in West Kentucky Water Sources

May 10, 2018

A pair of recently published studies analyzing wastewater in two western Kentucky communities discovered the highest per-capita consumption rates of methamphetamine and amphetamine in the United States, according to Dr. Bikram Subedi.

Murray State University faculty members and a student observed the contaminants in wastewater and surface water samples. One focused on the detection of illicit substances while the other focused on the consumption rates in two communities during holidays. The studies utilized a method known as sewage epidemiology, which analyzes wastewater to locate illicit substances in order to back-calculate the community use of drugs.

Contamination Profiles

According to the study, the per-capita consumption rates of methamphetamine (1740 mg/d/100 people) and amphetamine (967 mg/d/100 people) found are the highest-ever recorded in the United States. The study considered 30 milligrams as a typical dose of methamphetamine. An estimated 5.8 percent of the population within the community consumed methamphetamine in an observed week.

Murray State University chemistry professor Dr. Bikram Subedi is the lead author. Multiple European countries, including Italy and the UK, also used sewage epidemiology to discover trends in drug abuse. After conducting similar studies in New York in 2014, Subedi pursued similar research in west Kentucky.

“Very few studies have been done for these types of drugs in the United States,” said Subedi. “When I compared the level of drug consumption from my study versus others, then this is the highest level of those two drugs in the United States reported so far.”

Cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, morphine and methadone were detected in all wastewater influent samples, the wastewater that flows inward, in one study. Residue amounts of neuropsychiatric drugs, antidepressants and opioids were also discovered. The primary sources of wastewater influent, effluent, and surface water samples were from the Bee Creek and the Clarks River near Murray.

Murray State University biology professor Dr. Dena Weinberger assisted with experimental design and writing the study. She said the research could affect areas outside the sampled areas in the region.

“It’s likely that could affect the other states as well since bordering the river, it’s going to be a common water source,” said Weinberger. “Beyond that, it’s going to be a matter of what each individual state is doing as far as water regulations.”

The study referred to similar research that found fish in the aquatic ecosystem affected by the presence of drugs suffered from increased DNA fragmentation. The research was conducted by Michael Thomas of Idaho State University and Rebecca Klaper of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the research conducted, fish displayed traits similar to autism.

Subedi said toxic levels of drugs can potentially damage an aquatic ecosystem.

“These drugs, such as cocaine, are not being consumed in the community only one day, it’s every day,” said Subedi. “The continual discharge of these drugs into the environment is a problem.”

Estimation Of The Consumption In Two Communities

This study observed wastewater treatment plants in two western Kentucky communities that are fifty miles apart. These communities are referred to simply as ‘Community A’ and ‘Community B.’ Community A is described as containing a population of 20,000 people and a university. Community B consists of 25,000 people and has interstate highway routes and regional airport.

The consumption rates of ten illicit drugs were observed in 2017 during Independence Day, the solar eclipse and the first week of an academic semester. This is the first study to observe consumption rates during special events using sewage epidemiology according to Subedi. Dr. Dena Weinberger said that the research is valuable in both an academic and societal sense.

“We think this is valuable because it gives a comparison of where those traditional methods of information of drug use are accurate and inaccurate,” said Weinberger. “That can guide whether different types of interventions need to be implemented.”

Compared to a typical day, the consumption rates of amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine and methadone were higher on Independence Day and the solar eclipse. An estimated tens of thousands of people visited the region for the total solar eclipse. Compared to conventional methods, the combined estimated population that consumed amphetamine and methamphetamine was two to four times higher during this time.

Lanny Brannock, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection said that the timing of this study may have contributed to the results that were found.

“The interesting part of this was the timing of the eclipse and the amount of people that were there,” said Brannock. “It’s an interesting slice in time and an interesting way to go about looking at what was happening in the population at that point in time. The western part of the state was flooded with people and it was kind of a party atmosphere.”

Murray State University chemistry student Katelyn Foppe, who assisted in both studies, said that she was not surprised by the findings, but is concerned with what she saw.

“It shows that our method is able to narrow down and have a more accurate representation of what that usage is,” said Foppe. “It’s kind of comforting to be able to have this new method to collaborate with other ways of estimating this usage, maybe with law enforcement, but it’s kind of concerning to now see that maybe the drug use is more than what we’ve been seeing with conventional methods.”

Brannock said that even with the study findings, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection does not have to get involved. “We’re not required to monitor for these substances,” said Brannock. “We monitor for all kinds of things to make sure that water quality standards are met. Beyond that scope we don’t get too much into the politics or collegiate studies.”

The studies were published in Science of The Total Environment. Approximately $45,000 for research was funded through the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network. The team plans to continue research in this subject involving larger communities as well as further effects of toxic levels of illicit drugs on aquatic organisms.