Combating the Opioid Crisis, One Flush at a Time

Startup Biobot Analytics monitors wastewater to identify at-risk neighborhoods

Combating the Opioid Crisis, One Flush at a Time

By Kathy Pretz

Most people don’t spend time thinking about what’s in the waste they flush down the toilet. But health officials do. The urine in sewer water is a surprisingly rich source of information about the health of communities. Epidemiologists can analyze wastewater to check for viruses, chemicals, and both illegal and prescription drugs.

Armed with that information, public health officials can stock up on vaccines, equip ambulances with life-saving medications, and run awareness campaigns.

But testing wastewater samples can be an expensive, time-consuming job. Biobot Analytics, a startup in Somerville, Mass., that was spun out of MIT in 2017, is working to improve the process with its collection, measurement, and analysis service.

Biobot uses portable devices to collect wastewater samples, which it analyzes in the laboratory. The company uses the resulting data to create spatial maps and charts that can illustrate which neighborhoods have high concentrations of a particular substance.

Biobot’s approach can be used to look at lots of different compounds. But so far the company is focusing on one target: opioid metabolites from prescription pain relievers and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Metabolites are byproducts of the body metabolizing a drug. They are reliable indicators of whether a person has ingested or injected an opioid.

“Right now our focus is just analyzing for opioids because opioid addiction is a major public health crisis,” says IEEE Member Irene Hu, a hardware electronics engineer at Biobot.

Around 68 percent of the more than 70,200 U.S. drug-overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biobot has partnered with Cary, N.C., to help town officials assess the scope of its opioid epidemic, allocate resources, and then gauge the effectiveness of their efforts over time.

Hu talked about the project at the IoT–Smart Networks and Social Innovations panel, held in May during the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit in San Diego. You can watch the session on

The next IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit and Honors Ceremony will be held on 15 May 2020 at the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver hotel, in Vancouver.

Go to IEEE The Institute to read the complete article.