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GLOWING TAMPONS hold the key to ending pollution

Uni research team finds new way of tracing wonky sewer connections

By Alexander J Martin, 31 Mar 2015

A paper by a University of Sheffield research team, published Tuesday in the Water and Environmental Journal, has sought to answer one of the eternal questions facing humanity — how female hygiene products can be used to detect sewer misconnection discharge.

Professor of Environmental Engineering David Lerner told The Register that it was his PhD candidate, Dave Chandler, who came up with the idea of using tampons.

"Dave was working on the ecological impact of misconnection," Professor Lerner told us, explaining that misconnected drainage is a very difficult problem when it comes to water quality, possibly affecting up to a million UK households.

There are two main sewerage systems at work in most of the UK. A foul sewer will transmit waste water from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens to the sewage works for treatment, while a surface water sewer takes rainwater from pavements, roads and roofs and conveys it to a local watercourse.

Misconnections, in which waste water may be transmitted into a local watercourse, for example, can be very difficult to locate and severely impact water quality.

"Optical brighteners in watercourses are a good way of locating misconnections," said Lerner. Optical brighteners are present in many household products, such as detergents and toothpaste, which are intended to be disposed of by the foul sewer.

Chandler came up with the idea of submerging a tampon into a river and allowing it to absorb up as much effluent as possible before being inspected beneath an ultraviolet (UV) light.

Just as the brighteners in household products will glow under UV light, so too will those collected up by the tampons. By selectively placing their tampons in waterways, the research team were able to navigate themselves into such proximity that a visual inspection confirmed the problem.

"Tampons are untreated," said Professor Lerner. "They have not been exposed to the processes which affect most other cotton products, they come in clean packets and they've even got a string. They are the ideal objects for this."

The next step is to set up a project to examine the waters of Bradford Beck with volunteers to track down problems.

Professor Lerner told us he hopes to start in May and has put in a funding application as the project could be worked on with schools. ®

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