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Thu, Feb

Tracking Wastewater's Path to Wells, Groundwater

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We often “flush it and forget it” when it comes to waste from toilets and sinks. However, it’s important to be able to track this wastewater to ensure it doesn’t end up in unwanted places. A group of Canadian scientists has found an unlikely solution.

We often “flush it and forget it” when it comes to waste from toilets and sinks. However, it’s important to be able to track this wastewater to ensure it doesn’t end up in unwanted places. A group of Canadian scientists has found an unlikely solution.

Tracing where this water ends up is hard to measure: What’s something found in all wastewater that will allow us to account for all of it? The answer, of all things, is artificial sweeteners. These have several advantages over other compounds sometimes used to track wastewater in the environment.

“They are very specific to wastewater and have very few other possible sources in the environment,” explains John Spoelstra, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Their concentrations are often much higher than other wastewater markers and they don’t break down as quickly. This makes them easier to detect. Lastly, they are always present in wastewater. We have never found a wastewater sample that didn’t have these sweeteners present.”

Researchers looked at water from two sources in rural areas near Alliston, Ontario. The first was domestic water wells, privately-owned wells that supply water to a household. They also considered groundwater seeps, or springs. Using the artificial sweeteners as a flag, they tested to see if septic system water ended up in those sources.

Read more at American Society of Agronomy

Image: Eric Westberg collects a groundwater seep sample along the banks of the southern Nottawasaga River. (Credit: Natalie Senger)