Glow-in-the-dark tampons to save the UK’s rivers

Earlier in the week scientists unveiled the world’s first toilet that can generate electricity through urine-power, and once again, toilets are back in the spotlight as scientists announced plans to use glow-in-the-dark tampons to fix bad plumbing problems in the UK.

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the problem is that 5%1 of homes’ toilet waste is being pumped into the UK’s rivers and lakes due to ill-connected sewage pipes, severely impacting the health of our natural habitats.

Pinpointing which housing developments’ sewage systems are to blame involves complex and expensive testing but scientists have found a solution.

The latest study, published in the Water and Environment Journal, reports that when tampons are dipped into diluted detergent for just five seconds (a concentration 300 times less than that found in a surface water pipe) optical brighteners could be identified immediately and continued to be visible for 30 days. Tampons are the ideal detector because, unlike other cotton products, they are untreated.

The test was trialled in the field by suspending tampons on rods in 16 surface water outlets running into streams and rivers in Sheffield. When they were tested under UV lighting, nine of the tampons glowed indicating the presence of optical brighteners, and therefore sewage pollution.

Working with Yorkshire Water, they then followed four of the polluted outlets they had identified, dipping a tampon in at each manhole to find out where the sewage was entering the system. By doing this, they were able to successfully trace which houses required further inspection of their plumbing.

David Lerner, a professor of engineering at the University of Sheffield who led the study, 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.”

Currently, the only way to be certain that a building’s pipes are not connected correctly is by using a dye test, wherein dye is run through a toilet or sink and later checked to see where it reappears. Lerner states: “It’s clearly impractical for water companies to do this for all the households, but by working back from where pollution is identified and narrowing it down to a particular section of the network, the final step of identifying the source then becomes feasible.”

1 The Guardian, 2015. ‘Tampon tests’ could be used to track sewage in rivers. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/31/tampon-tests-could-be-used-to-track-sewage-in-rivers. [Accessed 24th April 2015].

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