Spatial variations in the consumption of illicit stimulant drugs across Australia: A nationwide application of wastewater-based epidemiology

Foon Yin Lai, Jake O'Brien, Raimondo Bruno, Wayne Hall, Jeremy Prichard, K. Paul Kirkbride, Coral Gartner, Phong Thai, Steve Carter, Belinda Lloyd, Lucy Burns, Jochen Mueller

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Obtaining representative information on illicit drug use and patterns across a country remains difficult using surveys because of low response rates and response biases. A range of studies have used wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) as a complementary approach to monitor community-wide illicit drug use. In Australia, no large-scale WBE studies have been conducted to date to reveal illicit drug use profiles in a national context. In this study, we performed the first Australia-wide WBE monitoring to examine spatial patterns in the use of three illicit stimulants (cocaine, as its human metabolite benzoylecgonine; methamphetamine; and 3,4-methylendioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)). A total of 112 daily composite wastewater samples were collected from 14 wastewater treatment plants across four states and two territories. These covered approximately 40% of the Australian population. We identified and quantified illicit drug residues using liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry. There were distinctive spatial patterns of illicit stimulant use in Australia. Multivariate analyses showed that consumption of cocaine and MDMA was higher in the large cities than in rural areas. Also, cocaine consumption differed significantly between different jurisdictions. Methamphetamine consumption was more similar between urban and rural locations. Only a few cities had elevated levels of use. Extrapolation of the WBE estimates suggested that the annual consumption was 3 tonnes for cocaine and 9 tonnes combined for methamphetamine and MDMA, which outweighed the annual seizure amount by 25 times and 45 times, respectively. These ratios imply the difficulty of detecting the trafficking of these stimulants in Australia, possibly more so for methamphetamine than cocaine. The obtained spatial pattern of use was compared with that in the most recent national household survey. Together both WBE and survey methods provide a more comprehensive evaluation of drug use that can assist governments in developing policies to reduce drug use and harm in the communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)810-818
Number of pages9
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2016


  • Cocaine
  • Drug residues
  • LC–MS/MS
  • MDMA
  • Methamphetamine
  • Wastewater analysis

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