Scientists can track the spread of opioids in sewers. But do cities want to know what lies below?

The French novelist Victor Hugo described the sewage system as “the consciousness of the city,” a place where there are no secrets. Transporting millions of gallons of wastewater, the sewer contains a record of the public’s health and the substances it consumes.

Today, science has made possible what Hugo could not have fathomed in his day: water-sampling robots placed at strategic points in a sewer system and capable of delivering ever-more precise information about a community’s health.

As the country confronts an opioid crisis that kills more than 60,000 American each year, one Cambridge, Mass.-based company is hoping that it can use that kind of technology to measure traces of the drugs in sewers. Doing so, according to the firm, Biobot Analytics, could help to reveal remarkably detailed patterns of drug use — and give communities a powerful tool to detect emerging public health threats.


“Our goal,” said Newsha Ghaeli, one of the company’s co-founders, “is to transform sewers into public health observatories.”

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