Fentanyl detected in Toronto’s sewer system more than triples in pandemic, federal survey finds
TORONTO -- The amount of fentanyl detected in Toronto’s wastewater supply has tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic as use of other drugs also rose substantially, according to a government survey of sewage in several major Canadian cities.
Government scientists analyzed what people in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver were putting down the drains to get a show of how the increase in drug consumption was nationwide, which could be a factor in the surge of deaths related to the toxic opioid drug supply.
“If you compare it to Olympic athletes, it’s like a urine test, but at a population level,” said Professor Viviane Yargeau at McGill University.
The biggest increase was in Toronto, which saw a 207 per cent increase in fentanyl detected when comparing tests between March and July of 2020 to the same period the year before. Methamphetamines detected in the city’s sewers jumped 48 per cent, while Cannabis jumped 27 per cent.
Edmonton also saw detectable fentanyl surge by 108 per cent, and Vancouver’s fentanyl also jumped 66 per cent.
The Canadian Wastewater Survey showed that different cities appeared to prefer different drugs. Cannabis was highest in Halifax at 742 grams per million people per day.
Methamphetamines were highest in Edmonton at 1,244 grams per million people per day, and fentanyl was highest in Vancouver, at 20 grams per million people per day, a province where opioid deaths have prompted it to declare a state of emergency.
“During a crisis, because there’s anxiety, everyone is having anxiety issues, and so all of the issues that we’re going through, people with drugs are going through,” said Michelle Joseph, the CEO of Unison Health and Community Services.
But with a toxic drug supply, deaths are up too, by 78 per cent to 521 in Toronto. On top of that, the public health advice that has been to stay home during the pandemic has meant higher mortality because more drug users are using alone and don’t have anyone to prevent an overdose using naloxone.
Harm reduction outreach worker Wayne Duhaney says he makes harm reduction kits with needles, sterile water, tourniquets and other items to prevent disease spreading. Unison Health also has a supply of naloxone it gives to users in the hopes they can use it to counteract an overdose while at home.
“It might be a statistic but I know their names. I grew up with them. It definitely hurts,” Duhaney told CTV News Toronto.
Staff say the kits are not substitute for a supervised injection site, where a nurse can watch a drug user inject and revive them in an emergency, preventing their death. The service is available in Toronto, but as much as an hour away by transit from Unison’s community, at Lawrence and Avenue Roads.
The centre is applying for a federal exemption to run its own supervised injection site, but faces funding barriers and the issue that the number of supervised injection sites in Ontario remains capped at 21.
“We would really like in Northwest Toronto to have a much wider spectrum of harm reduction, and right now we are extremely limited,” Joseph said.
Ontario’s health minister says the government has put $32.7 million into addiction treatment to help people recover post pandemic.
“Unfortunately these fatalities are increasing so investing more in mental health is equally as important and we are taking action on both,” she told reporters Wednesday.