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Why Alberta researchers are monitoring wastewater for opioids, lethal drugs


A Calgary researcher is flagging the importance of monitoring Alberta's wastewater for the presence of opioids and other lethal drugs, saying it could save lives.

Dr. Monty Ghosh has been monitoring wastewater for a research study and says the use of carfentanyl, a synthetic opioid used in veterinary medicine to tranquilize large animals, rose dramatically in June when drug overdoses in the province spiked.

"There was four times the amount of carfentanyl present in wastewater in June compared to earlier in the year," said Gosh, an addictions specialist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary and University of Alberta.

"I don’t think people were aware of what was in the drug supply."

Ghosh is hoping in the future, the results of the wastewater monitoring could be of assistance for emergency responders, health care providers and government officials.

"If there was a formal way to share the information it could be used as an early warning to provide more information about what is going on with the level of toxicity of the drug supply and possibly prevent deaths," he said.

Ghosh is one of the principal investigators on the study, working with Advancing Canadian Water Assets (ACWA), the same facility that was part of the team monitoring wastewater in Alberta for SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic. 

ACWA Executive Director Kevin Frankowski says this additional data has been a beneficial health tool, and the same detection system has been revised since to look for 48 substances connected to the use of illicit drugs.

"This research has the potential to have a positive impact for many people," Frankowski said.

"ACWA is one of a few places in Canada that has the capability to do this work. We have the leading-edge analytical lab, intellectual talent and highly specialized instrumentation necessary for this work."

Frankowski also pointed to the wastewater study as helpful in detecting trace amounts of chemicals and confirmed that xylazine has been in the wastewater.

Xylazine is best known as being a veterinary care drug that started to circulate in the drug supply throughout North America.

Dr. Michael Parkin, an infectious disease specialist and founding member of the wastewater team, says that monitoring isn’t just done for extremely harmful substances, but also any toxic agents that might be added to them during processing.

"Several of these dilutants are associated with specific toxicities that can result in a range of rare adverse events that are difficult to diagnose," he said.

"Wastewater surveillance through our sentinel network offers the potential to warn health providers to be alert for those presenting with compatible symptoms." 

For now, this pilot wastewater study is scheduled to end in the fall.

It is supported through funding from the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research at the Cumming School of Medicine as well as the Calgary Health Foundation.

The team is also partnering with C.E.C. Analytics, a Calgary company supplying the technology to collect the wastewater samples.

Paul Westland, PhD, is the CEO and founder of C.E.C Analytics. and says the goal is collect wastewater samples from a wide range of locations.

"The combination of leading-edge technologies developed by C.E.C. Analytics and the extensive knowledge of the wastewater surveillance team allows for this type of proactive monitoring to be extremely effective and applicable for any community across Canada," he said. 

Wastewater testing is currently done weekly at six testing sites across Alberta.

The research team is not disclosing these locations as Ghosh says that may increase stigma or leave the impression that illicit drugs are only found in certain specific areas. Top Stories

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