News Feature | January 2, 2018

Wastewater Pros Use Artificial Sweeteners As Monitoring Tool

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,
@sarmje

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Wastewater pros are using diet soda to track down pollution.

Sucralose, an artificial sweetener, does not break down in the human body, and that helps researchers track down water pollution, GOOD reported. Piero Gardinali, a professor at Florida International University, described the phenomenon in Scientific American.

“The whole purpose of having an artificial sweetener is that the body doesn’t recognize it as fuel, so you don’t use it for energy,” he said. “We have seen that if you put it in a wastewater treatment plant, nothing happens to it because the microorganisms don’t recognize it as food, either.”

Researchers call sucralose a tracer because it does not degrade easily.

“For this reason, water quality specialists are able to tell whether wastewater has made its way into natural rivers and lakes by measuring levels of sucralose. It’s easier than, say, sampling the water for a host of possible contaminants. If they detect sucralose, they know whether to pursue a more thorough investigation into the source and extent of the pollution,” GOOD reported.

Some wastewater treatment plants are using sucralose to their advantage.

“The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for example, which serves the Los Angeles area, monitors its water for sucralose — to reveal the presence of treated wastewater — once a year,” Scientific American reported, citing Stuart Krasner, the district’s principal environmental specialist.

Henry Briceño, also a professor at Florida International University, noted broader uses for sucralose, as well.

“He is working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to apply it to assessing the impacts of Hurricane Irma,” the report said.

The fate of artificial sweeteners in wastewater treatment plants is largely unknown, according to a study published by Environmental Science & Technology. The study sought to describe what happened to artificial sweeteners during the treatment process.

“In this study, mass loadings, removal efficiencies, and environmental emission of sucralose, saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame were determined based on the concentrations measured in wastewater influent, primary effluent, effluent, suspended particulate matter (SPM), and sludge collected from two WWTPs in the Albany area,” the researchers wrote.

Image credit: "grifo," luis © 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/