Around the Water Cooler: Sewage Science

By Sarah Blau

Cheddar Blog PhotoAs a pre-veterinary student and a dog owner, I probably pay more attention than most to what comes out the tail end of my pooch. And yes, I’m talking about poo. Though it sounds gross at first, excrement can actually tell us a lot about the health of the poo-producer.

As I dutifully scoop the offending pile into a biodegradable bag, a brief glance lets me know if my pup is dehydrated or has any GI upset I may need to address. And when we go for our annual checkup at the local vet’s office, microscope analysis of a fecal sample will find worms or other heath risks I need to know about to protect my little girl.

So, why am I going on and on about egesta (aka, poo)? Well, EPA scientist Christian Daughton is dabbling with the idea that knowledge of a community’s health can be gleaned from community waste—or, sewage—in much the same manner that bodily health knowledge can be gleaned from the waste of my pup!

This fascinating new research concept is referred to as “Sewage Chemical-Information Mining” (SCIM). It targets analysis of community sewage from waste-treatment plants for specific biological or chemical substances broadly associated with human health or disease. In this way, scientists might someday quickly screen for and locate community populations that are possibly exposed to health risks or susceptible to disease outbreaks. It could also be used to rank communities in terms of overall health.

Daughton published two papers last year describing the unique concept of SCIM and the results of his work to date. This research is intended as a catalyst for future work by federal agencies and others, presenting an innovative way to measure, monitor, and protect public health.

So, as off-putting as it seems, don’t pooh-pooh the importance of monitoring waste. This ground-breaking method of analyzing community sewage for chemicals that can reflect community health has the potential to turn into a whole new field of science!

And this is what I’ll be thinking about as I scoop up the steaming present my hound will undoubtedly “pooduce” for me this afternoon – how brilliant our world is that so much useful information can be found in a stinky pile of…

About the Author: Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working on the Science Communications Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She doesn’t often discuss poo around the water cooler – she finds it turns people off – but she does dispose of her dog, Cheddar’s, excrement on a daily basis.