Cary, MIT startup partner to install robots in sewers to research opioid use

Wake County News

In the sewers under Cary, there could be clues to the town’s drug problem.

Cary and the company Biobot Analytics are probing underground sewers looking for opioids in wastewater.

“There’s so much information in your sewage, but that information remains untapped,” said Noriko Endo, PhD Spatial Epidemiologist, with Biobot Analytics.

The MIT startup is installing robots in manholes. They will stay there for 24 hours so they can collect a representative sample of the population.

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Last year Cary saw a 70-percent increase in drug overdoses. Cary’s Deputy Town Manager Mike Bajorek was shocked when he found out people were addicted to pain killers and even using heroin.

“People that you know that are passing away from overdoses, they’re not dying under bridges or in dilapidated buildings. They are dying in our bedrooms of our neighbors, and if we can do something about that, if we can be proactive and stop at least one of those, then it will be worth it,” Bajorek said.

The data collected could help public health officials get an idea of which drugs are a problem in which neighborhoods. That way, they can develop treatment programs specifically tailored to those at risk and eventually determine the effectiveness of those programs.

EARLIER: Cary to use robot to monitor sewers for opioid levels

However, some people have voiced privacy concerns.

“When you look at it, that’s about the size of an Olympic size pool, and after a 24-hour period, we’re taking two and a half gallons out so the information is de-identifiable. But, I understand people’s concerns, but I think what we’re saying in this conversation, with the number of people this affects, this proactive approach is worth it,” Bajorek said.

The project is being funded through the Bloomberg’s Mayor’s Challenge $100,000 grant. Cary is also in the running for the grand prize of either $1 million or $5 million. That grant money would allow them to expand the technology to other parts of the state, and possibly even the country.

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