Researchers from the University of Waterloo and Environment Canada found elevated concentrations of artificial sweeteners in the Grand River, a major river in southern Ontario that flows into Lake Erie, and calculated the equivalent of 81,850 to 188,650 cans of soda pop flow from it into the lake every day.

The scientists also found that municipally treated drinking water also contained measurable concentrations of artificial sweeteners.

The study analyzed samples from 23 stations along the Grand River as well as tap water from Brantford, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. The sweeteners are sucralose, cyclamate, saccharin and acesulfame.

Scientists from the University of Waterloo and Environment Canada examined whether artificial sweeteners could be used as a tool to trace human wastewater.

Artificial sweeteners are commonly used as a sugar substitute in a variety of foods. They serve as ideal tracers of human wastewater because they exit the human body intact. Since they do not degrade easily, they pass through wastewater treatment plants and are discharged to the local watershed.

Lake Erie receives discharge from several highly urbanized watersheds, which may be delivering similar concentrations of artificial sweeteners to the lake. The effect of accumulating concentrations of sweeteners on the environment and aquatic organisms remains unknown.

One advantage of this tool is that it can be used to distinguish human from agricultural waste in surface and groundwater systems, allowing regulators to pinpoint pollution sources.

“Artificial sweeteners are an extremely powerful wastewater tracer, whether from wastewater effluent or from groundwater influenced by septic systems,” said Professor John Spoelstra, lead author on the study.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo and Environment Canada are currently using these tracers to identify the source of these elevated artificial sweeteners in groundwater, a common source of drinking water. Artificial sweeteners may be entering groundwater through leaking sewer pipes or septic tanks.

Professor Sherry Schiff is a co-author on the study. She and Professor Spoelstra are from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the Faculty of Science at Waterloo. Professor Spoelstra is also a research scientist with Environment Canada, and Professor Schiff is a member of the Water Institute at Waterloo.

The study was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Strategic Project grant.

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