Tampon:  A Cheap and Effective Tool That Could Be Used To Detect Highly Polluting Sewage Sources

The usage of tampons extends from a simple cottony material that can stop bleeding, to a glow-in-the-dark tracking device that could be used to show where sewage from homes is seeping into rivers. Sewages, if not properly disposed can result to pollution.

Scientists discovered through a study that tampons do have the ability and capability to absorb even tiny amounts of “brighteners” found in detergents, toothpaste and shampoo and subsequently glow under UV light.

A team at the University of Sheffield led by David Lerner, who is also a professor of environmental engineering in the same university, has shown that “tampon tests” can be used to track down which houses sewage is coming from at river locations where a problem has been identified. Lerner said: “Sewage in rivers is very unpleasant, very widespread and very difficult to track down. Our new method may be unconventional, but it’s cheap and it works.”

Lerner’s team has its focus on how to pinpoint housing developments wherein waste water pipes are mistakenly attached to the water network. Most new housing is built with separate pipes for sewage and other wastewater, such as rainfall in drains, that can be sent directly into rivers. “All you need is for someone to have a cowboy builder and connect their appliances to the wrong drain and you have sewage going into the river,” explained Prof Lerner.

According to the figures released last week by Environment Agency. Its estimates show that around 5% of homes have misconnections that result in sewage being pumped into streams or rivers, rather than being sent to treatment plants, and scientists believe this is a significant contributor to water pollution in Britain. Just 17% of England’s rivers are judged to be in good health and condition.

The problem is the identification of the real source of sewage while taking into consideration the complex and expensive tests that are available.

The latest study, published today in the Water and Environment Journal, reports that when tampons are dipped into diluted detergent for just five seconds, optical brighteners could be immediately identified and continued to be visible for the next 30 days.

Thanks to one of Lerner’s students who happened to identify that tampons are the ideal detector because, unlike most cotton products, they are untreated and do not contain optical brighteners.

The test was trialed in the field by suspending tampons on rods for 3 days in 16 surface water outlets running into streams and rivers in Sheffield. When they were checked under UV light, 9 of the tampons glowed, confirming the presence of optical brighteners – therefore confirming a sewage pollution.

Working with Yorkshire Water, the team followed the pipe network back from four of the nine polluted outlets they’d identified, dipping a tampon in at each manhole to see where the sewage was entering the system. They were able to successfully isolate the sections of each network where the sewage originated, narrowing down the households which would need to be inspected in more detail.

An ocular inspection in one area immediately revealed a house where both a sink and soil stack were connected to the wrong waste pipes.

At present, the only way to be sure a house has misconnections with its pipelines is by using a dye test – putting dye down a sink or toilet and seeing where the colored water appears.




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