Urban Metabolism

Urban Metabolism

May 20, 2016

May 20, 2016

What can a wastewater treatment plant tell us about the health of a population? Despite having a bad reputation for being the smelly place at the end of the pipeline, wastewater treatment plants are flush with a wealth of human health information.

Rolf Halden, PhD, professor and director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University can use the input and output from wastewater treatment plants to determine the health, lifestyle and consumption of a population.

This field of study, Urban Metabolism Metrology, can determine a population’s health by measuring, for example, the mass of prescription medications that are found in raw sewage to calculate real time per-capita consumption.

Environmental Health Perspectives, the flagship journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports, “The smelly sewage so many of us write off has begun to provide scientists with the ability to gauge human health at the population level for greatly reduced cost in nearly real time.”

Halden’s team realized that they could do the same health diagnostics with raw sewage, the black water that enters a wastewater treatment plant, and sewage sludge, the biosolids that are left after sewage has been treated, that doctors use when they test a patient's blood, urine and feces to determine what is causing a patient’s illness.

“We have access to stool and urine and blood, but for a whole city,” said Halden, “So now our clients, or our patients, are the cities rather than individuals.”

ASU is home to the Human Health Observatory, an archive of sludge and sewage samples from various urban populations from around the globe that may one day provide public health data that could help inform governments about how policy influences human health.

“That’s what we are working on right now. We want to develop a dashboard of public health for the United States, and ultimately the world. And compare how different regulatory environments lead to different chemistries and different exposure and health profiles.”

Wastewater treatment plants can also offer insight into chemical body burdens and environmental sustainability.

“It’s very powerful to look into water, and to understand what is left over after treatment,” said Halden, “It turns out, if a chemical is not removed from water or destroyed during the wastewater treatment process, it leaves the plant in either reclaimed water, or in sewage sludge.”

To read more about the Human Health Observatory and Urban Metabolism Metrology, click here.


Written by: Ally Carr