Glow-in-the Dark Tampons: They're Awesome (And Here's Why)

Glow-in-the Dark Tampons: They're Awesome (And Here's Why)
Photo by Ryan Franco / Unsplash

Tampons are cylindrical cotton pads that are used primarily for menstruation.

Despite what you may think, tampons are NOT a one-tricky pony. Scientists have found a way to use glow-in-the dark tampons to help protect the environment.

Contamination causing havoc in city

A research team led by David Lerner, Ph.D. from the Faculty of Engineering at The University of Sheffield, recognized the problem of the misconnection of wastewater pipes in their area. This misconnection causes contamination of the surface water sewers, which are primarily built as rainwater waterways to direct them to local streams and rivers.

Finding the source is contamination is tricky

These misconnections intermittently discharge contaminated water, making tracing and monitoring unproductive and expensive.

This is where glow-in-the dark tampons (tampons with optical brighteners) come in.

Optical brighteners save the day (but not perfect)

Optical brighteners (OB) are observed to fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and they do not occur naturally in the environment. Hence, its presence in streams and rivers would be considered abnormal. A fluorometer is usually used under ultraviolet light (UV) to measure their fluorescence.

These naturally occur in sewer lines because they are present in regular household products like toilet paper, shampoos, and laundry detergent for color brightening.

So, all you'd need to do is see if the water fluoresces from the OBs, trace it back to the source, and you're done!

Problem solved, right?

Unfortunately, no. This method is met with limitations in sample collection as they require a constant flow of sewer water. As previously stated, misconnected pipelines would only dispense pollution intermittently. It will not detect OBs if the discharge only happens from time to time.

This phenomenon led the researchers to take a different approach that is inexpensive and will address the problem in the passive sample collection...

Glow-in-the dark tampons save the day

They found the answer in the regular tampons sold to the public.

David Lerner, Ph.D., stated that the parts of the tampon are perfect for the study as its cotton wool is mainly designed to be germ-free and safe for the vagina. That also means that there are no optical brighteners present in its formulation. Its attached string is also very convenient in suspending it above the water.

This was the perfect solution because the tampons could be suspended in the streams to absorb any potential OBs over a period of days.

If the tampons were then observed to glow, that would mean the stream was contaminated, allowing us to easily trace the source.

Let's get testing

In the laboratory, the researchers concluded that the best number of days for the tampons to be exposed in the water is three days since significant rotting was observed after five to seven days.

After dipping the samples from the sewer water, the tampons were exposed to UV light to detect their fluorescence. Those fluoresced were considered positive for contamination, while those that did not were negative. They observed that OBs are still visible in the tampons for the next 30 days.

Then, they dipped tampons in 16 surface water sewers in their area and positioned them away from direct sunlight to prevent the photo decay of OBs. Nine out of sixteen tampons glowed, therefore supporting the hypothesis that the surface water sewers are definitely polluted. The researchers then recruited the help of Yorkshire Water in following the affected lines, and they were able to successfully isolate the households that needed to be inspected as potential sources of contamination.

After the experiment, they concluded that this innovative method would significantly minimize the work and expense of identifying and tracing the causes and sources of pollutants in their local waterways. They hope to expand the research to Bradford Beck, which runs through the whole city of Bradford.

Becoming a citizen-friendly method

Beyond the experimental success of this research, it also provided opportunities for the citizens to be included in monitoring the environment's health as tampons are affordable, simple to use, and readily available. UV lights can also be easily purchased. The public will be encouraged to be more aware of their surroundings and actively participate in these endeavors.

References 

Chandler, DM & Lerner, DN. (2015). A low cost method to detect polluted surface water outfalls and misconnected drainage. Water and Environment Journal. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/wej.12112

Santos-Longhurst, A. (2019). Tampons vs. Pads: The Ultimate Showdown. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/tampons-vs-pads#tampons

Severn Trent (n.d.) What is the difference between a foul sewer and a surface water sewer? Retrieved from https://www.stwater.co.uk/building-and-developing/help-and-faqs/sewerage/connection-what-is-the-difference-between-a-foul-sewer-and-a-surface-sewer/

The University of Sheffield. (2015, April 14). Glow in the dark tampons identify sewage pollution in rivers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 10, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150414102548.htm

The University of Sheffield. (2015). Glow in the dark tampons identify sewage pollution in rivers. Retrieved from https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/tampon-sewage-pollution-river-sheffield-university-1.453262