ASU researchers turning to Tempe wastewater to track community’s health

ASU researchers are using wastewater to track viruses and diseases back to neighborhoods where they started.
Published: Dec. 13, 2022 at 5:32 PM MST|Updated: Dec. 13, 2022 at 6:04 PM MST
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TEMPE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Researchers in Tempe are turning to wastewater as an inexpensive way to track our community’s overall health.

Wastewater samples are anonymous, meaning they can’t be tracked back to you, but they can be tracked to your neighborhood. Scientists are learning they can use it for health surveillance. “The idea is, rather than going to individuals, we turn to populations,” Rolf Halden, Ph.D., director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and professor at ASU, said. “And what better way to get a sample of populations than to dive into the sewers and retrieve a wastewater sample.”

Halden and his team at ASU first began looking into wastewater back in 2018, testing for opioids. When the pandemic hit, they used that same framework. “This field of wastewater monitoring and wastewater population health monitoring has really blossomed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Halden said.

Wastewater allows researchers to sample a large number of people while also pinpointing specific neighborhoods. “We are looking at everyone’s health, but you stay anonymous. If you get captured in the wastewater sample, we can’t find you,” he said. “But we get a general health profile, and I think that is where the real power is.”

Halden said he believes that by adapting the infrastructure, eventually, the science can be used for testing beyond viruses. “Sometimes you measure the metabolites or chemicals we excrete that indicates we have been exposed to something, whether that’s a virus or chemical and sometimes its markers of a progressive disease,” he said. “We call them biomarkers, and this is what we detect.”

Biomarkers can help identify things like polio, obesity, diabetes, and cancer, simultaneously helping health experts decide where to focus vaccination efforts or identify vulnerable communities. “Once we have this radar set up, we are in a position to spot the issue before people get sick,” Halden said. “That’s the real idea, to protect people while they’re healthy and have interventions with results we can observe in real time.” The City still hasn’t implemented the new changes, but you can track their results for COVID-19 here.