The “Tampon Test”

So it turn out tampons can be used for more than just feminine hygiene. Scientists are now using tampons for their experiments! As Gwen Pearson of Wired reports, researchers are flushing tampons down toilets to help detect sewage leaks in the UK. Which doesn’t make sense to me because I thought you’re not supposed to flush them down the toilet. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a guy…

Source: Huffington Post

The problem the UK faces is one that many developed countries face: contamination of natural waterways with “grey water”. Grey water is the water left over from your washing machine or dishwasher, as well as the runoff from your morning showers. There are a lot of contaminants in grey water (ranging from bacteria/fungus to assorted chemicals), but these eventually get removed through wastewater treatments. However, the same cannot be said for the water that goes through the storm drains on your street; this water simply gets thrown back into the local creeks and rivers. Therefore, if you have untreated grey water contaminating your storm water, you’ve got some issues to deal with.

Detecting this kind of contamination is expensive. We still do it, but it’s expensive. You either need specialized lab equipment and dozens of lab techs, or expensive fiber optic cabling.

Until now! Now we can use tampons! The secret is that laundry detergents usually contain optical brighteners, which are compounds that make your clothes brighter. They absorb UV light and emit it as bright white light (tip: to look really cool at the next blacklight party, draw temporary “tattoos” on yourself using laundry detergent, provided you don’t mind smelling like fresh laundry…). Since these are not naturally occurring compounds in nature, they can be used to differentiate grey water from storm water.

The best part about tampons is that they’re meant to absorb (let’s just say) liquid. So engineers at Yorkshire, working under professor David Lerner, decided that it might not be a bad idea to use that to their advantage.They tied tampons to a tree and let them dangle in the surface water of a river to “collect samples” for three days. They then stuck them under UV light to see if they glow. Of course, if they glowed, that would mean there’s contamination.

While this is an easy, cheap detection method anyone could do in their backyard, it does have some limitations. But the media doesn’t like to point that out, because they’re just here for the novelty of the story. (Losers.) The problem with using tampons is that there’s no way to quantify exactly how much contamination a river has, other than saying “this tampon glows more than this one”.  It would also be hard to find the source of contamination, because you’d have to find all the possible sites of contamination, and test each one individually. But for now, it does provide a cheap, user-friendly, and quite frankly, unique way to test for grey water contamination.

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