The Chinese government is surveilling human sewage in order to police illegal drug use.
Using a forensic technique known as wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), officials in dozens of cities are looking for traces of narcotics or certain metabolites that reveal what drugs are being consumed or manufactured in certain areas.
As noted by international scientific journal Nature, the southern Chinese city of Zhongshan is actively monitoring its citizens waste in order to determine how effective local drug-reduction programs are.
Li Xiqing, an environmental chemist at Peking University in Beijing who aides law enforcement, says the program has already helped police locate and arrest one drug manufacturer.
“The experience and lessons from the application of WBE and its adoption by the Chinese drug police in their daily management will be very relevant for other countries,” Li says.
Although other countries including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain analyze their citizenry’s waste in order to monitor drug use levels, China may be the first country to create policies allowing police to use the data to make arrests.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also reiterated last month the country’s anti-drug stance, while Li says at least 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) will be invested in WBE programs nationwide by 2019.
Li claims that analysis taken over a two year period following anti-drug campaigns by police led to a 42% drop in methamphetamine use as well as a 67% decrease in ketamine use.
Experts remain skeptical however that such programs would work outside of China.
Carsten Prasse, an environmental health researcher at Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University, says waste monitoring by police in the United States would undoubtedly be met with pushback.
“In China, the general population is used to following the directions given by the government, and privacy related issues don’t seem to be a major concern — the situation is totally different in the United States,” Prasse told Nature. “WBE represents a powerful new tool to assess drug consumption in our cities, but there is still a lot of work to do before it can be implemented on a larger scale.”
China continues to remain at the surveillance forefront, regularly introducing new tools and techniques to monitor the public.