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Wastewater analysis shows rise in opioid, sedative use during pandemic

An analysis of wastewater revealed increases in opioid and sedative use during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo by Kyle Rivas/UPI
An analysis of wastewater revealed increases in opioid and sedative use during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo by Kyle Rivas/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Use of easily abused prescription opioid pain medications and sedatives designed to treat anxiety spiked during the first few months of the COVID-19, a study presented Monday during the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society found.

The analysis of raw sewage produced by two towns in western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee detected increased levels of the opioid pain drug hydrocodone between March and June 2020, the researchers said.

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Based on these findings, consumption of the drug, one of the most abused prescription opioids, increased by 72% during the four-month period, the data showed.

The change may have been fueled at least in part by the use of telemedicine, or medical appointments conducted by phone or online, which gave people easier access to doctors, according to the researchers.

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In addition to the rise in hydrocodone use, the analysis revealed a 30% increase in consumption of benzodiazepines, which are sedatives used to treat anxiety, and a 40% bump in levels of antidepressants in the sewage.

Use of illegal drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine dropped during the same period, however, likely because travel restrictions imposed in many parts of the world to stem the spread of COVID-19 limited interstate and international trafficking of these substances, they said.

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"Our results match with all of the sources that we could find pertaining to other drug estimations in the community," study co-author Alexander Montgomery aid in a press release.

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This includes declines in city and state police methamphetamine and cocaine seizures, said Montgomery, a graduate student at Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

At the start of the pandemic, in March of last year, stay-at-home orders and other restrictions drastically affected how people lived and worked, leading to social isolation and economic instability, Murray and his colleagues said.

As a result of these stressors, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety have become more common across the country, causing some to turn to drugs, previous research has shown.

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Drug overdose deaths rose 30% nationally in 2020 as the pandemic forced many people into social isolation, due to school and business closures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For this study, the Murray State researchers used a technique called wastewater epidemiology, collecting raw sewage samples from treatment facilities in two towns.

In the lab, they measured for levels of easily abused prescription medications, illicit drugs and their metabolites in samples from a three-month period.

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They calculated per capita consumption for a diverse set of drugs based on their presence in the sewage entering treatment plants.

The researchers also assessed the wastewater samples for isoprostanes, which are hormones produced by the body in response to stress and anxiety, and found that they increased over the same period.

"That tells us as people's anxiety levels increased, the levels of prescription drug consumption also increased," study co-author Bikram Subedi said in a press release.

However, "the trends that we are reporting are only for the first four months of the early COVID-19 pandemic, and they may not be true for an extended period of time," said Subedi, a researcher at Murray State.

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