News Feature | December 30, 2013

Artificial Sweetener: The New Sewage Tracker?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Artificial sweeteners are not just for calorie counters anymore. Researchers have found they may be useful for tracking sewage.

That's because sweeteners are not entirely removed from water in the sewage treatment process.

"Scientists found elevated concentrations of four sweeteners - cyclamate, saccharin, sucralose, and acesulfame – in water samples collected along the length of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada," according to the Los Angeles Times

That could have big implications for the sewage industry, according to a study published this month in the journal PLOS ONE. The researchers found that artificial sweeteners may be "a reliable wastewater effluent tracer in rivers."

Per Gizmodo, here's what that means: "Drinking water is still safe—it has been treated, after all, and these fake sugar levels are quite low—but for scientists it presents an intriguing possibility. What if the flow of wastewater could be traced with fake sugar? A high level of artificial sweeteners, for example, could signal a sewage leak nearby."

As the Times put it, "Follow the artificial sweeteners."

Sweeteners can also be used to measure "rates of nutrient assimilation, track wastewater plume dilution, separate human and animal waste contributions and determine the relative persistence of emerging contaminants in impacted watersheds where multiple sources confound the usefulness of other tracers," the study said.

Sweeteners "were detected in samples collected from homes in cities that draw supplies from the Grand, which empties into Lake Erie," the Times article said.

The researchers, from Environment Canada and the University of Waterloo, "sampled the Grand at 23 locations along more than 150 miles from the river's headwaters to its mouth," the piece said.

More research is needed into "the environmental impact of artificial sweeteners themselves," which is still unknown, Gizmodo said.

What else slips past the sewage plant? Read previous coverage on Water Online to find out.

Image credit: “Sweetener packets in progress," © 2009 Bekathwia, used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license:

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