A study reveals the presence of illegal drugs in the groundwater of the Catalan capital

What is going on in Barcelona’s water? Well, quite a lot! Besides the fact that it contains a variety of illegal drugs (including cocaine, amphetamine compounds, opioids, cannabinoids and so on) it also appears, according to a recent study published in Science of the total environment, that the type of drug found is closely related to the geographical location, a finding that allowed the researchers to draw a map of drug use in the city.

But first things first: how do the drugs make it into the groundwater system? Surprisingly – I found this quite shocking but perhaps it shows a certain degree of naivety – the main source of the drugs appears to be leakage from the sewer system. The good news is that the drugs in the water are not a threat to public health – phew! – as this subterranean water is generally used to clean streets and water public parks and gardens (ever noticed anything different about the flora of Barcelona?).

So when scientists analysed groundwater for traces of drugs of abuse and their metabolites and then mapped the findings against the A-Z of Barca they discovered that drug consumption is related not only to geographical location, but also to social status, with cocaine and its metabolites dominant in more prosperous neighbourhoods, while the more affordable 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine (more commonly known as MDMA or ecstasy) was the dominant drug of abuse in poorer areas. So, around Calle Mallorca in the popular Eixample – an affluent area well know for its nightlife – cocaine is the drug of choice and is present in higher concentrations-  the metabolite of cocaine can be found at concentrations of 16.3ng per litre of water. Conversely, in a more working class neighbourhood, such as that around Avenida Paral.lel, the drug detected at the highest concentration is ecstasy, with the area around the river Besòs showing the  highest levels of methadone.

When interviewed by El Pais, the researchers also confirmed a finding of up to 60ng per litre of unmetabolised cocaine in the area around Eixample and admitted they were ‘very surprised by the presence of traces of cocaine, as if someone had thrown the drugs down the toilet’.

Bibiana Campos Seijo

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