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New Mexico tests schools' wastewater for drugs. Critics worry how data will be used

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

New Mexico's governor made headlines with an executive order last fall banning guns in public places. A less well known but still debated directive in that order told the state to test schools' wastewater for traces of drugs. It's unclear how that data will be used. KUNM's Megan Myscofski reports.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: There's blowing dust and sideways snow coming down in the desert outside of Belen High School, about 30 miles south of Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

MYSCOFSKI: Two people in bright, yellow vests and heavy, winter clothes work over an open manhole in the brush behind the school.

TOM BROWN: Ice packs to make sure everything stays cold. Not that that's a problem right now.

MYSCOFSKI: Tom Brown works with Eastern Research Group, a company that the state of New Mexico is contracting with.

BROWN: So this is our sample.

MYSCOFSKI: He and a state employee lower tubes down into the sewer, then suspend a barrel-shaped device at the top. This rig will pull samples of wastewater that's exited the school's bathrooms throughout one school day.

BROWN: We're going to take 32 samples every 15 minutes. That equals eight hours worth of samples.

MYSCOFSKI: This is happening at 194 schools across the state. Jonas Armstrong with the state's environment department says schools reflect their communities, and that's why it makes sense to test them. But data from testing can be imprecise.

JONAS ARMSTRONG: It can tell us that a substance is present. It can't tell us who is using it, can't tell us how many people are using it.

MYSCOFSKI: No one at the state level has said what they plan to do with the information. Critics say that raises red flags. The state posts results online. So far, it says cocaine is in about two-thirds of the schools tested, and fentanyl in about a tenth. That data isn't surprising. The superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools told The Wall Street Journal it confirms a long-known reality. Wastewater testing for drugs has existed for decades and is more popular in Europe and Australia.

ARMSTRONG: There has been a lot of wastewater testing for illicit substances in different ways, in different places around the country and around the world.

MYSCOFSKI: Since COVID-19, it has become more accepted and common in the U.S., but not for schools with minors. Contaminant researcher Carlton Poindexter, who teaches at Howard University, says hopefully, wastewater testing will lead to more resources for kids who need it. But...

CARLTON POINDEXTER: There is the risk of stigmatization. And then that community already has some other overlapping stigmatizations and perceptions, and that just kind of adds on to it.

MYSCOFSKI: And he echoes the fear of many in these communities that it could lead to more police in schools.

POINDEXTER: Marginalized communities, they usually don't have the best experiences with authority figures and police officers.

MYSCOFSKI: Poindexter says communities should know about the testing and have a say in the response to it, because, he says, an evidence-based approach is a community based one. Southwest Organizing Project activist Amanda Gallegos says the state does consult them on cutting down on illegal drug use. But with the wastewater testing, it feels like it isn't listening.

AMANDA GALLEGOS: The solution should come from the impacted people.

MYSCOFSKI: New Mexico's environment department spent $600,000 testing school wastewater for drugs over the last six months and is asking for more to continue it. Gallegos calls that a shocking price tag. She thinks that money would have made a bigger impact elsewhere.

GALLEGOS: I could name a couple things off the top of my head.

MYSCOFSKI: She says teens need places to go, like a teen center or jobs, more counselors and schools and addiction treatment. There's not a lot available in New Mexico. For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Albuquerque.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Myscofski is a reporter with KUNM's Poverty and Public Health Project.