Sewage Data Points to Widespread Use of Illicit Drugs in South Korea | Be Korea-savvy

Sewage Data Points to Widespread Use of Illicit Drugs in South Korea

A sewage treatment plant (Image courtesy of Hyundai E&C)

A sewage treatment plant (Image courtesy of Hyundai E&C)

SEOUL, May 30 (Korea Bizwire) – A multiyear nationwide study that analyzed sewage for traces of illicit drugs found that methamphetamine was detected at every wastewater treatment plant surveyed across South Korea, suggesting prevalent use, health authorities said May 29.

The investigation provides one of the most comprehensive looks yet at narcotics consumption patterns in the country based on wastewater-based epidemiology, a methodology viewed as offering more reliable data than statistics on arrests and drug seizures.

From 2020 through last year, methamphetamine was detected at all 57 sewage treatment facilities tested across 17 major cities and provinces, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) said, citing the findings of a research team led by professor Oh Jeong-eun at Pusan National University. 

While the study suggested widespread methamphetamine use, the estimated daily consumption per 1,000 residents declined each year, dropping to 14.4 milligrams in 2023 from 24.2 milligrams in 2020 across the areas served by the treatment plants. 

In contrast, the estimated consumption rate of cocaine showed a rising trend, increasing to 1.43 milligrams per 1,000 people last year from 0.37 milligrams in 2020 nationwide. Cocaine was detected at only five treatment plants in 2022, but its presence expanded to new areas like the city of Sejong. 

The MFDS cautioned that regional consumption estimates can be influenced by factors like rainfall during sampling periods and fluctuating population flows in sewage catchment areas.

Still, the findings added to concerns among experts over the ubiquity of illegal narcotics in South Korean society. 

“Given the hidden crime rate for drug offenders, illegal drug users are already rampant in our society,” said Cheon Young-hoon, director of the Incheon Chamsarang Hospital, a government-designated addiction treatment center. 

Cheon warned that the diversification of drug types, as evidenced by rising cocaine use estimates, heightened “the risk of a drug addiction epidemic and its associated social costs.” He urged swift government action to strengthen education, prevention and rehabilitation programs nationwide.

The MFDS said it would expand testing to detect traces of more narcotics, including synthetic and newly designated illicit substances, while seeking ways to conduct sewage-based studies more efficiently in collaboration with provincial health and environmental institutes. 

Chae Kyu-han, the drug safety planning officer at the MFDS, vowed to work closely with law enforcement like customs and police “to block the inflow of illegal drugs from overseas and stamp out domestic distribution.” He added that building a robust social safety net – from prevention to rehabilitation – would be a priority.

M. H. Lee ( 

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