A team of researchers from the University of Queensland and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research has found that the study of wastewater sewage can provide clues about the socioeconomic status and habits of people that live in different areas. In its paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group described its study and the lessons it learned.

Prior studies of public wastewater have highlighted the different kinds of drugs people take in different parts of cities, or which household chemicals are making it into people’s bodies. In this new effort, the researchers looked at sewage wastewater in several parts of Australia to learn more about differences in lifestyle between people of different socioeconomic classes.

The study by the team involved collecting and analyzing wastewater from six Australian states over seven days. In all the samples represented wastewater from approximately 21.1 per cent of the population of the country. By comparing wastewater contents and location, and using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the researchers detected patterns such as higher coffee consumption in parts of cities where more wealthy people lived. They found the same for vitamin B biomarkers.

The researchers also found that:

  • People in less affluent parts of the country tended to consume more alcohol.
  • Dietary fibre and citrus consumption was lower for people who did not finish high school compared to those with managerial jobs.
  • People living in poorer sections of the country tended to take more antidepressants and opioids.
  • Socioeconomic status did not appear to be a factor in the amount of antibiotics or artificial sweeteners people consumed.
  • Drugs atenolol, pregabalin, and tramadol were more popular with lower-income groups.
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The researchers acknowledge that there was a certain degree of error in their measurements due to factors such as interactions between chemicals in wastewater. There was also no way to measure output of material in the wastewater, such as whether a large number of people were consuming a small amount of something, or if just a few people were consuming a lot. Still, the researchers suggest their results show that education and occupation have not only a dietary impact, but also influence certain life choices.

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