THE rivers of Italy are flowing with cocaine, say scientists who have adopted a new approach to measuring the extent of drug misuse. The biggest river, the Po, carries the equivalent of about 4kg (8lb 13oz) of the drug a day, with a street value of about £20,000.
Cocaine users among the five million people who live in the Po River basin in northern Italy consume the drug and excrete its metabolic by-product, benzoylecgonine (BE). This goes from sewers into the river. So a team led by Dr Ettore Zuccato, of the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research in Milan, estimated the use of cocaine by testing the waters of the Po for BE, and for any cocaine that had passed through the body unaltered or reached the sewers in other ways.
What they found surprised them. They calculated that for every 1,000 young adults in the catchment area, about 30 must be taking a daily dose of 100 milligrams of cocaine, which greatly exceeds official national figures for cocaine use.
According to official Italian statistics, 1.1 per cent of people between the ages of 15 and 34 admit to having used cocaine "at least once in the preceding month". Almost all cocaine use occurs in this age group.
Assuming that there are 1.4 million young adults in the Po River basin, the official statistics suggest that there would be 15,000 cocaine-use events per month. But the evidence from the water suggests that the real usage is about 40,000 doses a day, a vastly greater figure.
"The economic impact of trafficking such a large amount of cocaine would be staggering," Dr Zuccato said. "The large amount of cocaine — at least 1,500kg — that our findings suggest is consumed per year in the River Po basin would amount, in fact, to about $150 million in street value, based on an average US street value of $100 per gram."
To confirm their findings, the team also sampled urban waste water from Cagliari in Sardinia, Latina in central Italy, and from Cuneo and Varese in the north — all medium-sized cities. The values they obtained from the undiluted waste water were far higher than those in the Po, as would be expected. But when translated into likely local use of the drug, they produced very similar figures — which suggests that the Po region is not exceptional in its cocaine consumption. The results cannot be explained by assuming that some drug trafficker was panicked into dumping his stash down the lavatory. If so, much more pure cocaine would have been found, and much less of its human metabolite, BE. In fact, the ratio of cocaine to BE was consistent throughout all the samples.
If anything, Dr Zuccato said, the method would be expected to underestimate rather than to overestimate cocaine use, because some would be lost or absorbed in sediments. So the real consumption may be even higher.
This method has previously been used by the same team to measure the by-products of widely-used prescription drugs, and has produced results consistent with known prescribing patterns. So it seems to work.
The technique has been developed by the Italian team and is complex, as it needs to be to detect such tiny residues — of the order of billionths of a gram per litre of water.
The scientists say that the method needs to be tested further before being brought into general use, but suggest that it would be a more reliable and much cheaper way of tracking trends in drug use than by using population surveys.
"The approach tested here, which is in principle adaptable to other illicit drugs, could be refined and validated to become a general, rapid method to help estimate drug abuse at the local level," they report in the journal Environmental Health.
"With its unique ability to monitor changing habits in real time, it could be helpful to social scientists and authorities for continuously updating the appraisal of drug abuse."
The levels of the drug and the metabolite found in river water are so low that any effect on natural life is very unlikely. But this is not true of all chemicals. Research indicates that chemicals that mimic natural hormones are having an effect on fish in many rivers, including "feminising" many male fish. The sources of these chemicals include hormones excreted by the human body and industrial chemicals that reach the waterways.