Finally, a good use for artificial sweeteners.

By Seriously Science | May 26, 2014 12:00 pm
Photo: flickr/Steve Snodgrass

Photo: flickr/Steve Snodgrass

It seems that at least every decade, a new artificial sweetener is let loose on the market to great acclaim — that is, until some study associates it with an increased risk of disease (usually cancer). So is there anything else that these artificial sweeteners are actually good for? Well, it turns out that artificial sweeteners are an excellent way to detect polluted water when it leaches out of landfills because they are abundant, soluble in water, and relatively stable. In fact, sweeteners invented earlier are present in the groundwater leaching out of older landfills, whereas newer artificial sweeteners are signs of more recent contamination. Sweet!

Artificial sweeteners as potential tracers of municipal landfill leachate.

“Artificial sweeteners are gaining acceptance as tracers of human wastewater in the environment. The 3 artificial sweeteners analyzed in this study were detected in leachate or leachate-impacted groundwater at levels comparable to those of untreated wastewater at 14 of 15 municipal landfill sites tested, including several closed for >50 years. Saccharin was the dominant sweetener in old (pre-1990) landfills, while newer landfills were dominated by saccharin and acesulfame (introduced 2 decades ago; dominant in wastewater). Cyclamate was also detected, but less frequently. A case study at one site illustrates the use of artificial sweeteners to identify a landfill-impacted groundwater plume discharging to a stream. The study results suggest that artificial sweeteners can be useful tracers for current and legacy landfill contamination, with relative abundances of the sweeteners potentially providing diagnostic ability to distinguish different landfills or landfill cells, including crude age-dating, and to distinguish landfill and wastewater sources.”

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