Wastewater Reveals Drugs of Choice as COVID-19 Pandemic Set In

By Megan Brooks

August 31, 2021

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. and people hunkered down in their homes to live and work, some people turned to a variety of legal and illegal drugs for relief - and an analysis of residues in wastewater reveals the most popular ones.

In the early months of the pandemic, there was a spike in consumption of prescription opioids and anti-anxiety sedatives, while some use of illicit drugs plummeted, Dr. Bikram Subedi and his colleagues at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, found.

Dr. Subedi presented the study results during a press briefing at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

The researchers collected and analyzed raw sewage samples from treatment facilities in two towns in western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee.

They found that between March and June 2020, consumption of hydrocodone, one of the most abused prescription opioids, spiked by 72%.

This could be due to people having easier access to their healthcare providers as they switched from in-person to telemedicine appointments. "Hydrocodone was accessible through the tele-prescriptions during the COVID lockdown," Dr. Subedi told the briefing. The increase in hydrocodone use is "well aligned with the increase of opioid overdose hospital emergency department visits," he noted.

Conversely, the use of illicit stimulants dropped by 16% for methamphetamine and 40% for cocaine, potentially due to travel restrictions limiting interstate and international trafficking of these drugs.

"Our results match with all of the sources that we could find pertaining to other drug estimations in the community," Alex Montgomery, a graduate student who worked on the project, said in a news release.

The data also suggest a nearly 30% increase in use of benzodiazepines and 40% increase in use of antidepressants.

In a related project, Dr. Subedi's team examined the same wastewater samples for isoprostanes, hormones that indicate oxidative stress and anxiety, and found their levels rose significantly.

"That tells us as people's anxiety levels increased, the levels of prescription drug consumption also increased," Dr. Subedi said in the news release.

"The trends that we are reporting are only for the first four months of the early COVID-19 pandemic, and they may not be true for an extended period of time," Dr. Subedi cautioned.

The researchers are continuing to collect wastewater on a monthly basis for analysis. Identifying trends of drug use and community-level anxiety as the pandemic wanes will help explain the overall effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people's lives, they say.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/3wNkalC American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2021 Meeting, presented August 23, 2021.

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