Compiled data from the city’s sewage system monthly to track community drug use patterns and understand the depth of opioid use.
Using this data, monitored areas with high opioid use and deployed emergency response resources and abuse prevention interventions to hotspots accordingly.
Utilized similar wastewater testing data and tracking methods to monitor COVID-19 levels and identify outbreaks.
A New Diagnostic Matrix
Testing wastewater for real-time information about key markers of public health — everything from viruses to food contaminants to drug compounds — has been around for decades. But the approach is relatively uncommon in the United States. And no other city is trying to map the needs of residents around the opioid abuse epidemic in this way, said Dr. Rolf Halden, a professor at ASU’s Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering.
“The United States is behind Europe. Every community that has done this work has not abandoned it, which is a testament to how well it works and how successful it is,” said Dr. Halden, who leads the wastewater data collection project in partnership with the City of Tempe.
Here’s how the wastewater analytics project helps the city identify opioid abuse hotspots and deploy resources strategically. Dr. Halden’s team takes raw sewage samples directly from five collection areas of the city for seven consecutive days each month. The scientists then test for four different types of opioids: fentanyl, heroin, oxycodone, and codeine.
After processing the samples, the ASU team hands off data to Tempe’s Enterprise GIS and Analytics team. The city can see where elevated levels of the four opioids are, and whether the opioids were metabolized or improperly disposed of. But the data contain no personally identifiable information — there is no way to tie data to specific addresses, neighborhoods or businesses.
All data are then published on the public Tempe Opioid Wastewater Collection Dashboard, created and maintained by Dr. Stephanie Deitrick, Tempe’s Enterprise GIS Manager. Through this dashboard and the Opioid Abuse Probable EMS Calls Dashboard, the information is analyzed by a multidisciplinary team, including Tempe’s Fire Medical and Rescue Department, to determine needed interventions. For example, if the data show a rise in opioid use among people under 18 in one area, the city might ramp up in-school outreach efforts. If one area suddenly becomes a major hotspot, the Tempe Fire Medical and Rescue Department can decide which emergency medical services and overdose prevention resources to move or increase to that area.
After implementing interventions, city officials can then track their potential effectiveness by monitoring changes in wastewater data alongside the EMS calls data. It’s a data feedback loop enabling the city to target its efforts — and, hopefully, prevent abuse and deaths.