One of the most innovative solutions for combating water pollution could be hiding in an unexpected place — the feminine hygiene aisle.
Through laboratory tests and field trials, researchers from the University of Sheffield in England have found that the material in tampons makes them excellent indicators of sewage pollution. Under ultraviolet light, tampons glow to reveal the pollutants that flow from residential areas into natural bodies of water.
The research, published today in the Water and Environment Journal, suggests that tampons could play an instrumental role in ecological research.
Tampons for Science!
Tampons are made from natural, untreated cotton to protect skin. This also happens to be just the right material for detecting chemical pollution.
“We didn’t look for anything else because cotton wool is perfect, especially with a string attached and individually packed,” lead author David Lerner, Ph.D., told Healthline. “[Tampons are] very cheap too, using a generic make.”
The cotton in tampons absorbs chemicals called optical brighteners, often used in toilet paper, laundry detergent, shampoo, and other common household products. The optical brighteners in these substances glow under UV light, indicating the presence of contaminated water.
If scientists find optical brighteners in river water, it’s evidence that sewage from a private home is leaking into the ecosystem. They can trace the brighteners back to misconnected plumbing in someone’s home that is allowing their wastewater to flow out into fresh water sources instead of going into a water treatment plant.
Researchers tested the method in the lab by dipping tampons into a solution containing a small amount of detergent. Researchers were able to immediately identify the optical brighteners in the detergent, which were visible for the next 30 days.
In the field trial, researchers suspended tampons for three days in 16 surface water outlets. The tampons that glowed indicated the presence of optical brighteners as a result of sewage pollution.
The researchers teamed up with the utility company Yorkshire Water to follow the pipe networks back from the polluted outlets by dipping a tampon in each manhole along the way. The scientists found the origins of the sewage outflow and were able to locate the households with possible sewer misconnections.
“Each tampon tells whether there has been pollution at that spot since the tampon was put in place,” Lerner said. “That may be sufficient to report to the utility or regulator, or the time or space between samples can be halved to locate the problem more accurately.”
Method Perfect for Citizen Scientists
Sewer misconnections pose a huge risk to the environment and public health. When home sewage flows improperly into rivers and streams, harmful effluents are discharged into the environment.
But finding these misconnections has been a challenge because they release pollution intermittently, making them difficult to monitor. They also emit a range of compounds that are tough to pinpoint individually.
However, tampons can be used to monitor water quality over long periods of time and can pick up specifically on optical brighteners. Plus, even people without a technical background can master this technique, Lerner says.
“It’s entirely nonecological in method, although of course it has important ecological consequences,” Lerner said. “The technical part is when using it in sewer networks because of the problems of lifting manhole covers, often in the middle of the street. Using it in streams has almost no technical expertise required.”
Following the success of this research, the tampon detection system will be applied to finding sources of pollution in a river called the Bradford Beck.
Affordable, simple to use, and readily available, tampons could have a variety of scientific applications. A prime example is the potential use of tampons to detect endometrial cancer, reported today in the journal Gynecologic Oncology.
Are there any other applications for tampons in environmental research? “None yet!” Lerner said. “It will be interesting to see if anyone is inspired.”