Community Urinalysis

The NYT Magazine’s Year in Ideas is my favorite issue of the year, and this one is no exception. One idea that I particularly enjoyed is the concept of community urinalysis. By examining the sewage water of a city, scientists can examine which drugs its inhabitants are using. As Clive Thompson writes:

…when [Jennifer] Field’s team tested a mere teaspoonful of water from a sewage plant — which it ultimately did in many American cities — the sample revealed the presence of 11 different drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine.

The research team called this technique community urinalysis. From a privacy standpoint, it’s a very clever approach to monitoring drug usage, because while it is involuntary — drug users can’t help urinating — it also manages to preserve the public’s anonymity. “It’s the closest to the urinal you can get without violating privacy,” says Field, who presented her findings at an August meeting of the American Chemical Society.

I look forward to a whole slew of maps that show, at a glance, the drug usage of different cities. And better yet, ones that show the drug use over time (which they have already begun measuring).