Glow-in-the-Dark Tampons Track Sewage Leaks in Rivers

Tampons were used by scientists to discover sewage leaks from misconnected household pipes. The Period Blog

Tampons have been hailed by scientists as an effective way to identify pollution in rivers.

A new study led by David Lerner, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Sheffield, helped identify specific households where pipes are misdirecting sewage into rivers rather than treatment plants.

During the study, the tampons were suspended on rods above 16 different surface water outlets which ran into rivers and streams. Afterwards they were dipped in diluted detergent for five seconds, where nine of them showed up optical brighteners (chemical compounds) under ultraviolet light, indicating the presence of water pollution.

The team worked with Yorkshire Water to trace the pipe network back from four of the nine pollution sites and dipped tampons in each manhole to discover the source of the leak.

This revealed which households required their pipelines to be tested, including one where both a sink and a soil stack were connected to the wrong pipes.

Lerner said pollution in rivers is usually widespread and difficult to track, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimating in 2009 that around 5% of homes have incorrectly connected waste water pipes.

"All you need is for someone to have a cowboy builder and connect their appliances to the wrong drain and you have sewage going into the river," he said.

"Our new method may be unconventional, but it's cheap and it works."

According to Environmental Agency figures, only 17% of England's rivers meet the required standards to be deemed 'in good health', down from 29% in 2014. Scientists feel sewage leaks are a significant contributor to water pollution in Britain.

Lerner acknowledged the current method for detecting misconnected pipes, which involves putting dye down a sink or toilet in every household, is impractical for water companies.

He said the method used in the study - tracing the source where the pollution enters the waterways - makes it more feasible to identify the cause of the contamination.

A student in the study described the tampons as the ideal detector device, as they are made from pure, untreated cotton which doesn't already contain optical brighteners.

The potential savings is in the thousands and Lerner plans to launch a citizen science project in May, beginning in Bradford, to identify homes that have misconnections.

In Bradford, the sewage works is outside of the city, however there is still pollution in the river, indicating pollution is likely to be coming from homes.