Wastewater Testing in Arizona Helping Opioid Crisis

Feb. 27, 2019

A new government initiative in Tempe, Ariz., involves testing wastewater for traces of opioids to create data

The city of Tempe, Ariz., is partnering with Arizona State University on a local government initiative that involves testing wastewater for traces of opioids to create data that is more nuanced and robust.

According to Stephanie Deitrick, the city’s enterprise GIS manager, the goal is to get a better understanding of what is happening through the data.

According to Government Technology, Arizona State University researchers go at randomized times to 15 places in the city where they have access to wastewater. The locations of the testing are randomized to avoid any kind of steady environmental bias. The researchers collect samples, taking them back to be processed for traces of materials with opioids, this includes everything from heroin to codeine to oxycodone. They look for traces of the raw drug as well as the drug in a metabolized form, indicating it has been ingested.

The data scientists then convert that information into an estimate of the amount of drugs per day per 1,000 residents that have been ingested in certain areas. According to Government Technology, they measure it against trends over time and conveying the information back to public servants, including technologists like Deitrick as well as members of the fire department or EMS. The testing also has a public-facing component, the opioid wastewater dashboard.

According to Government Technology, the usefulness for the work can manifest in several ways. Deitrick gave an example involving fentanyl. If, for example, the wastewater testing identifies higher levels of the substance than first responders are used to, the project is set up to reach out to the city and inform them of the risk within 24 hours.

“It gives us a proactive way to prepare first responders so that they’re aware that they’re likely to come into contact with something that’s even more potent,” Deitrick said to Government Technology. “It’s all about trying to find ways to provide better info to help people who are out there in the field.”

Wastewater testing as a source of data about opioids is a concept that is new, according to Government Technology. Tempe and its academic partners potentially being the first in the nation to use it that way. According to Deitrick, other cities are currently using wastewater testing to look at things like stress hormones that can be broader indications of community health.