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Tampons may not be an obvious scientific tool, but engineers from the University of Sheffield have been using them to identify where waste water from baths, washing machines, sinks and showers is polluting our rivers and streams.
The natural, untreated cotton in tampons readily absorbs chemicals commonly used in toilet paper, laundry detergents and shampoos. These chemicals — known as optical brighteners -are used to enhance whites and brighten colours, and show up under ultra-violet (UV) light, a phenomenon often seen in glowing t-shirts under certain lighting in bars and clubs.
Using a mixture of laboratory tests and field trials, the team from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering have shown that when tampons are suspended in water contaminated by even very small amounts of detergents or sewage, they will pick up optical brighteners and glow under UV light. The findings were published March 31 2015 in the Water and Environment Journal.