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.

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