Deadly opioid detected in wastewater for the first time

University of Queensland researchers and international collaborators have found a deadly synthetic drug in wastewater in the United States - the first such detection globally.

Dr Richard Bade from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences led a team which analysed wastewater samples from eight locations in seven US states: Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

Dr Bade said wastewater from two of the sites, in Illinois and Washington, recorded a type of opioid called protonitazene.

"Protonitazene is a novel synthetic opioid around three times more potent than fentanyl, and even very small amounts can produce life-threatening toxic effects," Dr Bade said.

"The protonitazene found in Illinois wastewater was at a level below the quantification limit of our instrument, but the wastewater from Washington contained protonitazene at approximately 0.5 nanograms per litre."

Dr Bade said the detection was concerning.

"Novel synthetic opioids are a leading contributor to overdose deaths worldwide, with protonitazene itself linked to several fatal overdoses in the United States," he said.

"These synthetic drugs have been detected in substances typically sold as other opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin, as well as in products containing benzodiazepines and cocaine.

"Novel synthetic opioids were initially developed in the 1950s by the pharmaceutical industry, but they were never approved as medicines.

"More recently illegal laboratories have started developing synthetic opioids as stand-alone products."

The US wastewater samples were collected over nine days between December 2022 and January 2023.

The samples were acidified, flash frozen and sent to Arizona State University for sample processing before being sent on to UQ’s lab in Brisbane for analysis.

"Our study and results highlight the importance of wastewater surveillance to detect new and dangerous drugs, so that even when minor amounts are detected, this is recognised by health authorities and relevant government bodies," Dr Bade said.

The research is a collaboration between UQ, University of South Australia, Arizona State University’s Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education’s NPS Discovery program.

paper is published in Science of the Total Environment.