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Researchers from the University of Antwerp’s Toxicological Centre analyse wastewater to study the lockdown’s influence on alcohol and illegal drug consumption. Orange Data Analytics provides them with the reliable population data they need.
‘The sewers are a reflection of society.’ So says Tim Boogaerts, who is conducting PhD research with Maarten Quireyns at the University of Antwerp’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Their research, based on chemicals found in sewage, aims to monitor the use of psychoactive substances among the population, such as illegal drugs, antidepressants, sleeping pills, sedatives and opioids.
This involves analysing wastewater samples for metabolic secretions. While this provides a good picture of which wastewater comes from which area, they also need to know how many people were present in each area at a given moment.
Telecoms data as a reliable source
‘We consulted Orange to identify exactly which telecoms data we needed. For instance, if we take a sample from the water treatment area in Antwerp-Zuid, we ask how many people were in that zone at a particular time. That way we can account for the daily changes in population,’ says Boogaerts.
The importance of this telecoms data in terms of reliable figures became clear during Belgium’s first lockdown in March 2020. ‘The figures that Orange provided showed a fall of 30 to 50 % in the population. This means the quantity of material we measured in the wastewater resulted from only half as many people as would normally be there,’ Boogaerts explains.
‘An extra advantage is that the online platform Orange set up for data analysis is very simple to use,’ adds Quireyns. ‘We can easily retrieve the data we need, even down to the half-hour.’ The researchers are currently analysing the data to further study how the lockdown has affected illegal drug and alcohol consumption. A scientific publication will follow soon.
‘Wastewater epidemiology is still a fairly recent discipline,’ says Boogaerts, ‘but it’s major advantage is that you can measure the population’s consumption behaviour almost in real time. And thanks to the telecoms data from Orange, we have access to reliable and up-to-date population data. That’s the missing link in our research.’