sewage chemical-information mining

Applying EPA Research to the Underworlds

By Dustin Renwick

stack white sewer pipes

Sewer pipes

Flushing a toilet eliminates waste, but when we flush information about our health circles down the pipes too. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists have launched the Underworlds project to study community health by monitoring sewage. The project builds on the work of EPA scientist Christian Daughton.

“If we could actually gauge the collective health of an entire community, that has profound implications,” Daughton says. “You’re achieving something that’s never been seriously considered before – examining communities as integral patients.”

Daughton published conceptual research in 2012 as part of EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects program that explained his idea of Sewage Chemical Information Mining (SCIM). Now MIT associate professor Eric Alm will explore the data that travels beneath Massachusetts neighborhoods.

MIT team members found Daughton’s research when they were writing the proposal for Underworlds. The large project encompasses biological components, looking for viruses and bacteria, as well as Daughton’s ideas that Alm says “explained in exquisite detail how to mine sewage as an information platform.”

SCIM relies on biomarkers, scientific shorthand for certain biological compounds our bodies produce when something happens in our cells.

Think of the loading screen that pops up when your computer opens an application. That’s a visible sign that gives clues to an underlying process. In our bodies, stress and disease produce these same sorts of clues via biomarkers that include a group of chemicals called isoprostanes.

If the sewage mining concept is correct, the levels of isoprostanes will rise with increased stress in the community.

However, Alm and the MIT team first need to answer fundamental questions about data collection: where to take sewage samples, how frequently, and how do samples change depending on the source, the season, or the time of day?

Once researchers can show that monitoring sewage systems is feasible, they can then develop parameters for a community’s “normal” biomarker range.

“If you have a community in the normal range and another far beyond it, you have some important questions to pursue at that point,” Daughton says.

Key factors could include healthcare availability and exposures to toxic substances or to physical stressors such as noise and heat. For a future best-case scenario, sewage streams would become reliable data streams that translate to change at ground level.

“In addition to cool basic science that I’m sure will come out of the program,” Alm says, “can we glean information that really helps make informed policies about what’s going on in their city?”

Kuwait City, Kuwait, will serve as the full-scale Underworlds testing site after MIT concludes work in Massachusetts in 2017.

“If Alm’s work proves successful,” Daughton says, “it will represent a significant advancement in the prospects for quickly and inexpensively monitoring public health in real time.”


About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.