News Feature | April 9, 2018

Wastewater Analysis: Key To Fighting Opioid Crisis?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,
@sarmje

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Wastewater pros may have a new role in fighting the opioid crisis.

Biobot Analytics is a startup staffed by chemists, engineers, and architects, founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It focuses on bringing the emerging field of “wastewater epidemiology” to cities. Wastewater epidemiology is the analysis of sewage for information about public health issues, including what drugs residents may be using and what diseases are active in the local population.

Biobot makes wastewater epidemiology technology, and it is trying to sell cities on the idea that this field is important. Biobot launched six months ago, and its technology has already gone live in Cambridge, MA, and Cary, NC, according to Government Technology.

“Everybody pees, every day,” said Newsha Ghaeli, co-founder of Biobot, during a pitch to a group of mayors, per Government Technology. “And this rich source of human health information aggregates in our public sewers — an infrastructure that you own, you maintain and you manage.”

Experts say testing wastewater for drugs has already been going on for years in Europe, but using the information to inform specific public health initiatives is an emerging field.

Mike Bajorek, Cary's deputy town manager, explained why his city is participating and stressed that is will not be used as a police investigation tool, per WBUR.

“Our police have much better ways of understanding and finding where illegal drugs are going on than for us to be spending money measuring wastewater. What we hope to find is to get baselines for different areas, to really do two things: If we get information, or when we get information, that illustrates a higher level of prescription opioid use than in other areas, or if there is illegal drugs going in an area, that is a great point to be able to have conversations, and that's what we're after, to have families talking about what's going on — what's going on in their community, what's going on in their family,” he said.

Bajorek added that the technology gives public health officials access to predictive data about drug use, which can support preventative interventions. By comparison, much opioid use data is gleaned from overdose deaths.

Over 115 people in the U.S. overdose on opioids and die each day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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