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Published On: Wed, Jul 25th, 2018

Gleaning Gems of Information From Sewage Wastewater

Combining technology with the sewers is not a completely foreign concept. High level tech savvy plumbers, city engineers and public officials sometimes join forces to send a waterproof robotic sewer camera attached to an optic cable into the underbelly of a city’s sewers to reveal deep clogs, cracks or other problems that otherwise would be very difficult, if not impossible, to detect. Pipeshark, which uses this technology as part of its trenchless plumbing services, explains that technology provides invaluable information that helps with deciding on the best repair option.

photo Gerd Altmann via pixabay

Now, however, robotic technology will detect much more than clogs, leaks and other plumbing issues in the sewers – it will be used to reveal the dark secrets about a community’s health, specifically illegal drug use, by serving as a communal urine and stool sample. A biotech company called Biobot Analytics has developed bacteria detecting robots which test wastewater in the sewers to extract targeted information, the results of which are then analyzed by scientists.

While many city officials welcome this innovation and the information it provides, some residents are not as receptive. They argue that since they do not have the choice to opt out of this project, it is an invasion of their privacy. The biotech company has responded by assuring citizens that the technology is incapable of pinpointing specific individual drug users or their homes. As a whole, collecting and assessing the information that results from this project gives communities a head start on detecting dangerous trends and public health threats.

At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars the technology comes at a steep price. Wastewater from cities like Boston, Kuwait, and Seoul have already been tested, and now Cary, North Carolina, is bringing in the robots to help fight a sharp increase in opioid use in the well-off suburb. The wastewater from 10 different areas of the city will be tested, each containing waste from 4,000 – 16,000 residents, allowing researchers to detect the prevalence of certain drugs including morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone, heroin, and fentanyl in specific neighborhoods.

Cary has experienced 46 overdoses from these drugs in 2017 which was a 70 percent jump from 2016. This wastewater-based epidemiology program, running this summer, will give city officials data they can use to set up public health programs to combat the dangerous trend, while continued testing may provide insight into the effectiveness of their efforts.

Author: Jacob Maslow

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