The socioeconomics of sewage – analysing waste water may assist census takers

17 July 2020

You are what you eat, the saying goes. It therefore follows that what you excrete gives away a lot about you.

Writ large, that information might yield useful demographic clues about particular neighbourhoods.

This, at least, is the thinking behind a study by researchers from UQ's Queensland Alliance of Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) and the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

Analysing sewage gives a pretty good profile of an area’s population, so the research team collected data during the 2016 Australian census.

They collected samples from more than 100 sewage-treatment plants for five to seven consecutive days around the time of the census, and analysed these for 40 chemicals that past research has suggested have socioeconomic significance.

In total, the team looked at the concentrations of six legal recreational drugs, caffeine and nicotine among them, two illegal recreational drugs (amphetamine and methamphetamine), seven opioids (the legality of which depends on the circumstances), eight antidepressants and antipsychotics, nine other pharmaceuticals, two artificial sweeteners and six markers of diet, such as enterolactone, a substance that shows how much fibre people are consuming.

The Economist have written about the research ⁠— by Dr Phil Choi, Dr Jake O’Brien, Dr Ben Tscharke, Professor Jochen Mueller and Professor Kevin Thomas from QAEHS, and Dr Saer Samanipour from UvA ⁠— published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

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