How do you think scientists could most effectively look for short-term changes in a population of people? It turns out the answer to this question is kind of crappy… literally.
A group of researchers at MIT are in the midst of a wastewater tracking experiment that will end in 2017. These scientists think that the components in wastewater could eventually “help communities assess public health and make better-informed policy decisions,” Grist reports.
So, how does this all work? Jennifer Henaghan of the American Planning Association’s Green Communities Center, has the poop.
“Good data is key to making good planning decisions, which are essential in creating sustainable policies,” Henaghan says. “Knowing the number of people in an area can tell communities when and where investments in public services and infrastructure, especially transit infrastructure, are needed. It can also help public officials ensure that public services [like police and fire] are meeting the needs of the area.”
The old research
Your next question is probably, “will scientists be hanging out in my bathroom to, uh, collect this data?” No, you guys. The process is much more sophisticated than that.
In 2012, Christian Daughton, an EPA scientist, published conceptual research that was in the EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects program. Daughton’s research concerned Sewage Chemical Information Mining (SCIM). “SCIM relies on biomarkers, scientific shorthand for certain biological compounds our bodies produce when something happens in our cells,” an EPA blog reports. And all this data could easily be collected via a network of sensors.
The new research
Now, back to the beginning…
Daughton’s research is currently being examined at MIT—the multi-year project is called Underworlds. The research is taking place under the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and MIT associate professor Eric Alm is exploring the data from the sewage.
“Several labs at the school are collaborating on a ‘smart sewage platform’ that would incorporate tools for measuring and analyzing data,” Grist reports. “Their goal is to make it easier for communities to use this ‘vast reservoir’ (of knowledge, not sewage) to predict and mitigate disease outbreaks and to develop a new type of census. The data in question would not be traceable to any specific person — news that will come as a relief to some.”
If this research is successful, scientists will be able to develop parameters for a community’s normal biomarker range, the EPA reports. “If you have a community in the normal range and another far beyond it, you have some important questions to pursue at that point,” Daughton adds. “Key factors could include healthcare availability and exposures to toxic substances or to physical stressors such as noise and heat.”
When the experiment wraps, Kuwait City, Kuwait will be the home of the full-scale Underworlds testing site.
“For a future best-case scenario, sewage streams would become reliable data streams that translate to change at ground level,” the EPA blog adds.
Now, that sounds like the shit to us.
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Image of man in the bathroom via Shutterstock