There are no secrets. If somebody really wants to find out personal details about us, they can. Even if we safeguard our information, build a fortress around our privacy, and verify, accept or click on only the most trustworthy sources, there are leaks. So to speak.
The information leaks occur daily — in fact, many times a day, depending on how much we each eat and drink. At the community level, the leaks combine to create a pipeline of highly intimate information waiting to be tapped. So to speak.
Even if we shred our garbage beyond recognition, our waste still says volumes about us. So to speak.
In fact, if somebody really wants to learn about us, they can probably find out more about us than we know ourselves.
It’s happening already. As of last month, for example, local researchers began plumbing this daily data dump for signs of COVID-19 among us. Researchers from the University of Victoria have partnered with local tech company Pani Energy to collect and analyze sewage samples taken from local pumping stations to detect incipient outbreaks of COVID-19.
It’s the start of a project to monitor and report to public- health authorities on data gathered from wastewater treatment plants across the province. The goal is to develop an early warning system to alert health authorities when outbreaks are on the point of happening in a region.
When a person is infected with the coronavirus, the virus’s DNA shows up in that person’s poo days before they start feeling ill and even if they have no symptoms. Monitoring Victoria’s sewage for traces of the virus can yield an accurate, community-level picture of emerging infection rates up to days — possibly a week — before doctors and hospitals start seeing people needing treatment.
The researchers can’t pinpoint the person or even the household putting the viral DNA into the system. All going well, however, they’ll be able to identify areas within the region that are sloughing higher viral loads, based on where samples are sampled and how much DNA each sample contains. There’s a bit more involved than that, of course.
Sewage offers up a honey wagon-load of information about us. In another case of secrets revealed, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control used samples from sewer overflows and wastewater treatment plants, as well as municipal raw sewage discharge to track the spread of norovirus to shellfish farms on the coast. Thanks to those efforts, a 2018 norovirus outbreak linked to farmed oysters lasted just six weeks, compared with the previous, pre-tracking, outbreak in 2016-2017, which lasted five months.
Last year, Statistics Canada scooped the poop in five cities over 12 months to reveal cannabis and illicit drug use rates and patterns. The study exposed none of Victoria’s secrets, but it did out Halifax residents as the study’s top pot consumers. Montreal residents came in second and Toronto third. Vancouver and Edmonton ranked lower for weed use, but showed high meth and opiate use.
Cocaine use didn’t spike regionally, but the wastewater data suggested use of cocaine goes up in the summer, drops during the fall, then increases again in the winter.
Sewage epidemiologists have also plumbed what our behinds leave behind to glean information about the medications we take. Standard recommended-dose data allows the researchers to estimate how many people contributing to a sewage-collection system are taking birth control pills, antidepressants, antipsychotics, pain relievers, chemotherapy and so on. They can do this, because anything we eat that our bodies don’t metabolize and absorb flushes out the other end.
The information potential of our waste streams is immense. Consider how University of Washington researchers used whale poop to investigate resident-orca population health. They determined the sex, age and health of individual whales, as well as what and how much they were eating. The scientists also measured the animals’ reproductive, metabolic and stress hormone levels, and the amount and variety of parasites, environmental toxins, and hormone-disrupting chemicals the animals carried.
So many secrets could come to light thanks to what comes out of where the sun doesn’t shine.