ASU lab home to largest waste repository in U.S.

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Researchers at Arizona State University are combing through sewage to get a better snapshot of public health. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Researchers at Arizona State University are combing through sewage to get a better snapshot of public health. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The Center for Environmental Security at ASU's Biodesign Institute is home to the largest waste repository in the U.S. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) The Center for Environmental Security at ASU's Biodesign Institute is home to the largest waste repository in the U.S. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Researchers at Arizona State University are combing through sewage to get a better snapshot of public health. 

"It's not always pleasant, the types of samples we get, but there is a lot of information there," said Rolf Halden, the director of the Center for Environmental Security at ASU's Biodesign Institute.

At the facility, fridges aren't full of boxed lunches. They're storing sewage. 

"We can use wastewater treatment plants as observatories to look for chemical and biological risks that are posing threats to public health," Halden said.

They take small samples and measure for different substances. 

In fact, Halden said their lab is home to the largest waste repository in the U.S.

"That gives us information about what you've done during the day, how much alcohol you've consumed, how much caffeine you've consumed, what prescription drugs you are taking," Halden said.

All of the samples are anonymous and give us a glimpse of the larger picture of an area. Take the opioid epidemic, for example; they can measure illicit substances in sewage, keeping in mind, a lot of our wastewater ends up back in the earth. 

"There are chemicals and things in sludge but remember you also elected to take those drugs, to drink that cup of coffee and so forth. There are lots of chemicals we add to it," Halden said.

Halden said the trace amounts of chemicals in sludge usually don't pose health risks. But their research could reveal identity larger problems, and help keep our soil clean. 

"We can forecast what types of toxic chemicals are building up in your body, but it's much easier to take a sample from a wastewater treatment than take fat tissue and analyze it," Halden said.

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