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Glastonbury's down the toilet

Not the most rock-n-roll science project ever

Philip Strange 10 July 2011

Festival portaloos: a rich source of data?

He said it was his sewage and he wouldn’t let anyone else play with it

University common rooms are drab places at the best of times and this one was no exception. The state of the furniture suggested heavy use, but it was still early in the day and the room was eerily empty. Only the intermittent noise of traffic from the open window intruded on the otherwise silent scene. People bring life to common rooms and this one is home to a shifting population of academics, technicians, postdocs and students who live part of their day here. Having witnessed many banal conversations as well as a handful of triumphs and tragedies, the room awaited a new day.

Two young men wandered in, both second year PhD students, both dressed in jeans and t-shirts, both looking weary. One of them, Dave, got two mugs from the cupboard, checked how clean they were, sat down at the table and glanced half-heartedly at a dog-eared magazine covered with brown stains. The other, Mike, set up the kettle and lovingly took the bag of ground coffee out of the fridge. He carefully measured the right amount as if it were a precious chemical and put it in the cafetière. When the kettle had nearly boiled he took the hot water, added it to the coffee and sat down.

“Good weekend?”

“Been in here most of it, had another go at the new synthesis but got a poor yield,” Dave said. “Took hours. What about you? Recovered yet?”

“From Glastonbury? Still a bit short on sleep, but the coffee’ll help.”

Judging that the coffee was ready, Mike pushed the plunger down, taking great care not to disturb the coffee grounds. Two cups of the strong black brew were then poured. He took one and passed the other to his friend.

“Thanks. How was it?”

“Muddy, but we had a good time. U2 were amazing, I was so close I could even see the rain on Bono’s sunglasses.”

“I saw something about drug testing on the news?”

“Well, you know Glastonbury.” Mike laughed.

“No, something about testing the toilets for drugs.”

“Oh, that. Yeah, it caused quite a buzz. Some guy had the idea of looking for new drugs. He thinks Glastonbury might be good for spotting them.” He paused to take a drink but it was still too hot. “You know how the toilets are awful, but it gets worse. Apparently they collect all the toilet stuff in a big tank.”

“Must be a big tank,” Dave said with a smile.

“Then they let it into the sewers gradually. Well, this guy wanted to test the toilet waste for drugs to get a kind of snapshot of what people are taking. He wanted to take samples from the big tank and then I guess he planned to put them through a GC-Mass Spec to see what was there.”

“He must have sensitive detection. How many people are there, 100,000 or more? That’s a huge volume of waste. Either his detection is very sensitive or it’s a lot of drugs.”

“Well, he didn’t do it in the end, Michael Eavis wouldn’t let him. Said it was his sewage and he wouldn’t let anyone else play with it.”

“I can see why. Eavis wouldn’t want any real information to spoil the myth, but why did this other guy want to look anyway?”

Mike leaned forward and took a large draft of coffee.

“That’s better. Well, you know about these legal highs, don’t you? Drugs like miaow, before it was banned?


“Well, people are still taking the banned ones and there’s any number of new ones being made now. You can get them online but no one knows how many new ones, or even what they are.”

“So they reckoned they could spot old and new drugs in all that toilet waste?

“Apparently, yes.”

“Sounds panicky to me. Couldn’t they just test samples they get from busting people at the festival?”

“They don’t really bust that many people – they don’t want to spoil the festival vibe. Glastonbury is like a little world of its own. But the police were testing. They’d set up a lab a few miles from the site. When they got hold of a sample it was shipped off to the mobile lab and identified.”

“Why the hurry?”

“I’m not sure but I spoke to one of the police there and they want to let other festival organisers know what people are taking and what new drugs might be coming.” He finished his coffee. “All this talk about drugs makes me want some more caffeine.”

He got up and performed the same ritual as before. The chatter in the room was beginning to increase as people arrived for morning break. The common room came to life but their table was still clear. He sat down once again with the steaming cafetière.

“They must really feel out-of-control to be behaving like this,” suggested Dave.

“They are, these labs in the Far East are synthesising all sorts of new ‘highs’ and putting them for sale online. When one drug is banned, the guys in the Far East have another one ready. You’ve heard of cyber attack – well, this is pharmacoattack.”

“We should set up ourselves.”

They both laughed. Then, sitting quietly for a while, they finished their coffee and got up to leave.