Nation’s health secrets to be found in its sewage

Scientists are already analysing the nation’s sewage to measure drug use, but their tests could soon have widespread implications for understanding Australians’ health, including the rate of diseases such as depression.

Each day researchers analyse samples of wastewater from treatment plants at secret locations around the country.

“Last year we managed to collect samples from 44 per cent of the Australian population from one week and that was just 15 wastewater treatment plants,” University of Queensland researcher Jake O’Brien told Lateline.

“So in terms of how many people you can actually cover with one sample, it can be anywhere from 1,000 people up to 1.5 million, maybe 2.2 million people.”

A recent analysis of Queensland’s sewage suggested a major city had seen a nearly five-fold increase in methamphetamine use since 2009.

A sample from one day in a regional Queensland city found what equated to one milligram of methamphetamine per person.

The scientists can also test other drugs such as methadone, MDA, MDMA, ecstasy and cannabis, but researcher Jochen Mueller said much more could be learned from Australians’ sewage, and there was potential to make major advances in understanding health issues.

“Drugs was really just the starting point,” he said.

“There [are] proposals to monitor population health … for example how much fruit, how much vegetables, what they eat.

“We can do alcohol and tobacco consumption.”

He said scientists could also soon measure human health “biomarkers” such such cholesterol and depression.

“It would be fantastic to have markers for how happy or unhappy people are,” he said.

“Look, the sky’s the limit. I cannot yet dream up where we will be able to use these tools in the future.

“So this is why we archive all these samples — I’m really sure that in the next 10, 20 years we will come up with so much better techniques and new markers that we can look backwards and see whether something has actually changed.”

Less alcohol than expected in Australian sewage

Aside from testing for drugs, the research team has been involved in a separate, global study focusing on alcohol consumption and sewage.

Samples taken from Canberra and Toowoomba showed a daily consumption of about 15ml and 10ml; of alcohol, respectively. A standard drink contains 12.5ml of alcohol.

That is significantly below the figure the World Health Organisation cites for Australia, which is based on alcohol sales.

The WHO’s latest report estimates Australia’s daily consumption is about 27ml per person per day.

Mr O’Brien said another benefit of testing sewage was that it provided an anonymous snapshot of the community.

“Nobody’s getting harassed, nobody’s getting singled out, we can’t identify you, we don’t want to identify you,” he said.

“We want to find out about the health of the actual population.”