Tracking teen trends: Unveiling drug use in high school via wastewater tests

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – New Mexico has taken an unprecedented step by becoming the first state to test wastewater in public high schools, aiming to uncover traces of opioids and stimulants. The results have left local health officials surprised.

Prompted by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health order in September, citing a surge in drug-related deaths and declaring substance abuse a public health emergency, the Department of Health began school wastewater testing. This month, the state released the initial results, revealing that 88% of schools tested positive for cocaine or its metabolite, while 29% tested positive for fentanyl or its metabolite. Metabolites are the chemical compounds that drugs are broken down into after their consumption. The samples also found that 92% tested positive for methamphetamine or its metabolite. However, with methamphetamine, it’s impossible for the testing to distinguish if those results are due to illicit drug use or for legal uses like ADHD medication. None of the samples tested positive for heroin.

“It merits a conversation from parents to kids, like right away, tonight at dinner,” James Kenney, New Mexico’s environment secretary, told The Wall Street Journal. “And we now have to ask ourselves the question, are the intervention programs happening in communities effective?”

This initial data comes from more than three dozen high schools, and the state plans to finish testing almost 200 schools by March.

The state is using a method similar to the one used for spotting Covid-19 outbreaks in 2020. While it helps gather basic data and identify health concerns, it can’t reveal how many people are using drugs, how much they’re using, or the details of drug use, whether on or off school grounds.

“If it saves one life, or keeps one or many other kids off of some sort of illicit drug, that feels like moving in the right direction,” Kenney told The Wall Street Journal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 112,000 Americans have died from illicit drugs within the latest 12-month reporting period.