Social, demographic, and economic correlates of food and chemical consumption measured by wastewater-based epidemiology

Research Highlight

Sewage tells society secrets

© Mihail Miheev/EyeEm/Getty

© Mihail Miheev/EyeEm/Getty

Sifting through sewage could provide a population health check and highlight areas facing social challenges.

Domestic wastewater can reveal a lot about a population’s consumption of chemicals, from illegal drugs to pharmaceuticals and caffeine, and could provide a secret window into societal health.

A team that included researchers from the University of Queensland analysed wastewater samples gathered across Australia at the time of the national census, which assesses the socioeconomic status of each area using indicators such as education and employment.

They found greater concentrations of vitamins, fibre and caffeine in areas of high socioeconomic status, suggesting the importance of education and occupation in people’s diet. On the other hand, wastewater in areas with poor socioeconomic status contained more drugs, painkillers and antidepressants.

The next census will provide the chance to look to the sewers for any changes in diet, drug use and overall health of the population.

Supported content

  1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, 21864–21873 (2019). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1910242116
Institutions Share
The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia 0.75
Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Norway 0.13
Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research's (CYSAR's), Australia 0.13