Something in the Water

Want to know how hooked on drugs your town is? There's a remarkable and rather gross new way to find out. Scientists now believe they can measure the prevalence of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in a community's raw sewage.
by | September 2007

Want to know how hooked on drugs your town is? There's a remarkable and rather gross new way to find out. Scientists now believe they can measure the prevalence of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in a community's raw sewage.

The technique is something like asking a whole city to pee in a cup. It turns out that traces of various drugs show up at the wastewater treatment plant in roughly the same proportion as they are flushed down users' toilets. Examining sewage won't tell you anything about whether individuals have taken up drugs or quit their habit. But it's possible to see trends across a whole community by testing just a teaspoon of wastewater.

That information would be useful to public health officials and others who want to know how well, or badly, their campaigns against drug use are going. Currently, data can be spotty, as it is often gleaned from surveys and police reports. But it is likely to get better.

The new method comes from a research team based at Oregon State University. The researchers tested wastewater in 10 U.S. cities, although they decline to name which ones. Lead researcher Jennifer Field tells the Associated Press, "Wastewater facilities are wonderful places to understand what humans consume and excrete."

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

In Atlanta, there's a new way to go Dutch: The local zoning board recently let a family erect a 45-foot windmill next to their house, despite an outpouring of not-in-my-neighbor's-backyard opposition.

The argument was only the latest of several involving people who want to power their homes with backyard turbines. Beach Haven Terrace, New Jersey, is reconsidering its approval of one resident's windmill after neighbors complained that it was tall, unsightly and noisy. Earlier this year, Melissa, Texas, a Dallas suburb, denied a resident's request to build a 33-foot turbine behind his house. In the future annals of American zoning disputes, the chapter on home windmills may come right after the one on cell-phone towers.

The controversy is due to recent advances in technology. Small turbines are now efficient enough to make electricity production workable on a micro scale. It can still cost upwards of $10,000 to install a windmill at home, but that investment now pencils out favorably over many years, especially where power costs are going up. Some early adopters are also trying to make a public statement by building small monuments to carbon neutrality.

SPRAWL IN REVERSE

Big cities and their suburbs grow from the inside out, right? Not always.

That's the conclusion of Jason Ur, who has been studying growth patterns of a really big metro area--in Mesopotamia. The Harvard anthropologist examined bits of pottery scattered around Tell Brak, in northeastern Syria. What he found, by dating the artifacts and mapping their distribution, was that suburban settlements began around 4000 B.C. well away from the central city. Only later did they creep inward toward the urban core.

The finding, published in a recent issue of the journal Science, questions many archaeologists' assumptions about how ancient cities grew. Does it have anything to say about modern America? Yes and no. Tell Brak may not explain much about present-day Phoenix or Las Vegas, or the centrifugal forces that keep pushing growth in so many metros farther into the exurbs. But it does call to mind the character of much growth today in cities where infill development and the constant churn of tearing down and building up is making suburbs more dense and more urban.

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