It’s amazing what you learn when you dig through sewer content: what people flush down the toilet can tell a lot about their lifestyle and economic status. In fact, the info gathered could shed light on whether a subject is rich, divorced, owns a business, or even have little or no education.
We are already being tracked by the IRS, Google, GPS, smartphones, and credit cards. However, there is also an unexpected snitch lurking in our bathrooms. The wastewater, which contains biomarkers of everything we eat and swallow, certainly provides a great deal of information when this data is cross-checked with our standard of living.
In a study published in PNAS magazine, researchers from the University of Queensland and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research collected one week’s worth of daily wastewater samples from 22 wastewater treatment plants, which make up 21% of Australia’s population, and cross-checked the data based on the latest census. The researchers were able to compare the water composition with the socio-economic data from the census, such as age, education and income levels, employment rates and quality of housing; 43 biomarkers were analyzed and although the researchers found sometimes surprising correlations, some of the results were quite logical.
More vitamin B biomarkers are found in the urine of wealthy people showing a more diversified diet, researchers note. The authors also show that there is a strong correlation between fiber intake and the level of education, especially among executives, who eat more fruit and vegetables than those who are less fortunate. They also examined biomarkers of sweeteners such as sucralose, acesulfame, and saccharin, which seem to have a unanimous classification regardless of the standard of living.
The consumption of opiates is roughly evenly distributed by the standard of living and age, with two exceptions: morphine, whose consumption increases significantly with age (indicating a higher incidence of chronic illness), and tramadol, which is very common among workers (presumably exposed to pain in the workplace). The analysis of antidepressant biomarkers is also very interesting. In general, antidepressants are more prevalent among the disadvantaged, but each antidepressant seems to have a preferred target, such as citalopram for single and divorced people, venlafaxine for workers, and amitriptyline for the more educated. Another curiosity is the high consumption of cetirizine, an anti-allergic drug used for allergic rhinitis and urticaria, by entrepreneurs.
Alcohol and coffee
Tobacco biomarkers are evenly distributed among the population, but alcohol biomarkers are highly correlated with three indicators: high-income, management, and high-income households. In other words, the richer a person is, the more they drink, and “drinking has become an indicator of social status,” says the author. Similarly, “coffee consumption seems to be strongly associated with higher education and economic affluence. This is a conclusion that challenges the stereotype that less fortunate people are more likely to abuse alcohol.