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Tempe, Ariz., Wastewater Testing Yields Opioid Crisis Data

As jurisdictions across the nation continue to battle a worsening opioid crisis, data scientists in Tempe are working to give first responders more nuanced information to help them adjust their work.

Like many jurisdictions across the country, Tempe, Ariz., has in recent years used data-driven decision-making to help its first responders deal with the everyday impact of the national opioid crisis.

Now, the city is partnering with Arizona State University on a local government initiative that involves testing wastewater for traces of opioids — both ingested and intact — to create data that’s even more nuanced and robust. The goal is pretty direct, said Stephanie Deitrick, the city's enterprise GIS manager, simply to get a better understanding of what’s happening through the data.

The way it works is that researchers with Arizona State University go at randomized times to 15 places in the city where they have access to wastewater. The locations of the testing are also randomized so as to avoid any kind of steady environmental bias. Those researchers collect samples, taking them back to be processed for traces of materials with opioids, a group that includes everything from heroin to codeine to oxycodone. They look for traces of the raw drug — perhaps substances that have been flushed — as well as the drug in a metabolized form, indicating it has been ingested.

The data scientists then convert that information into an estimate of the amount of drugs per day per 1,000 residents that have been ingested in certain areas, measuring it against trends over time and conveying the information back to public servants, including technologists like Deitrick as well as members of the fire department or EMS. The testing also has a public-facing component, in the form of an opioid wastewater dashboard.

The usefulness for the work can manifest in several ways. Deitrick gave an example involving fentanyl, a potent narcotic that can be dangerous for first responders to even touch. If, for example, the wastewater testing identifies higher levels of the substance than first responders are used to, the project is set up to reach out to the city and inform them of the risk within 24 hours.

“It gives us a proactive way to prepare first responders so that they’re aware that they’re likely to come into contact with something that’s even more potent,” Deitrick said. “It’s all about trying to find ways to provide better info to help people who are out there in the field.”

Wastewater testing as a source of data about opioids is a concept that is relatively new, with Tempe and its academic partners potentially being the first in the nation to use it that way. Other cities, Deitrick said, are currently using wastewater testing to look at things like stress hormones that can be broader indications of community health. These sorts of processes are still being explored by the researchers in Tempe, with the early stages of the project so heavily focused on the opioid crisis.

Future uses for the wastewater testing involve redirecting resources, once it becomes clear that certain areas are struggling less with use than others.

“What we’re going to do over time is start to look at whether the numbers are trending down,” Deitrick said, “or are we seeing the number of EMS calls going down and also the level of opioids in the water going down in certain areas.”

It’s just another layer of information to help the local government direct resources aimed at responding to as well as pre-emptively stopping opioid overdoses. It builds on the existing opioid dashboard launched in Tempe last year. That dashboard visualizes opioid overdoses and other incidents within the city, painting a picture of the crisis on familiar streets for residents. It also notes areas that are likely to see future calls for EMS in connection to opioids.

This sort of work is becoming more common across the country. Jeremiah Lindemann is a public interest technology fellow at New America who is coordinating a national opioid mapping initiative. Lindemann said Tempe is the first jurisdiction to his knowledge that’s functionally collection and using wastewater testing data in this way.

“It’s the closest thing to an early warning system a city can get,” Lindemann said of the work, “rather than death data or overdoses.”

In his capacity with the national opioid mapping project, he works with many local governments, and has for some time now. He said in general he’s noticed technology and data work to stop the opioid crisis from becoming broader, expanding into new preventative areas around treatment and helping likely repeat victims find resources.

These efforts are also being played out in the private sector, by companies like Biobot Analytics. Their approach relies on robotic collection systems to monitor drug consumption via city sewer systems. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.