ESR scientists say the planned Police roll-out of a national wastewater drug testing programme will provide real-time intelligence about what drugs are being used in New Zealand’s towns and cities.

However, the testing, likened by scientists to “one large urine test”, also has the potential to tell New Zealanders how healthy we are.

ESR chemist, Andrew Chappell, says the testing of wastewater in a community can provide large amounts of interesting and useful information about communities, with drug use sampling just one application from wastewater testing.

“We can look at human health biomarkers like heart disease, for instance, and while it’s a relatively new field, these are things that are starting to be looked at overseas.”

“At a global conference I attended recently, more than 50 studies presented showed what other discoveries could be made.”

In the field, known as wastewater-based epidemiology, scientists can look at a variety of things in wastewater related to human health, such as food contaminants, infectious diseases, pesticides, all by analysing specific biomarkers excreted by people in the catchment areas.

Police Commissioner Mike Bush, has announced an expansion of the Police and ESR’s pilot wastewater testing programme which will now take in 39 sites around the country, capturing 80 per cent of the population.

Wastewater testing is crucial to Police and other agencies, such as the Ministry of Health and New Zealand Customs understanding of drug consumption in communities.

Combining two of ESR’s expert capabilities in drug forensics and biowastes, the initial wastewater project started almost two years ago, testing sites in Auckland, Christchurch and Whangarei.

ESR scientists spent 20 months sampling wastewater over seven consecutive days each month, meaning patterns could be identified both daily and in the longer term.

Mr Chappell says in terms of drugs in wastewater, it’s particularly useful for looking at trends over time.

“You can look for correlations between other interventions, education programmes and so on, to inform whether these interventions have been useful,” he says.

In a Norwegian study, scientists compared methamphetamine rates in wastewater with hospitalisations from psychosis, while a UK study investigated the state of public health in a catchment area simply by measuring stress biomarkers.

"Instead of taking months or years to test thousands of samples of urine and analyse them in any one study, analysing wastewater can provide results about a population in near real time enabling interventions that could save lives.

“The opportunities really are exciting.”

Photo shows (l to r)  Police Commissioner Mike Bush, ESR CE Keith McLea and Hon Stuart Nash, Minister of Police For more information, please contact:

0800 ESR MEDIA (0800 377 633) or


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Gael Woods
  • Health science