National Post: Caffeine helps find sewer pipe leaks

Montreal’s coffee and Red Bull habit is giving scientists a new way to look for wayward sewage, according to a new University of Montreal report.

After testing 120 brooks, collectors and outfalls in Montreal, researchers discovered that samples containing human urine and feces were also lightly caffeinated. Their conclusion: If there’s an abundance of caffeine in the water, “it means you have a leaky sewage pipe somewhere,” lead researcher Sébastien Sauvé told the Post on Monday.

Traditionally, researchers analyze sewer leakage by testing for fecal coliforms, a family of bacteria that includes E.coli. The test is unable to gauge the presence of human sewage because fecal coliforms could just as easily come from pigeons, raccoons or a nearby dairy farm. Caffeine, by contrast, is human-specific.

“Cows don’t drink coffee,” said Mr. Sauvé.

Unlike many other chemicals in human waste, caffeine is also unlikely to have bled into the water from a nearby farm or industrial facility. Montreal’s aging sewer system is apparently far from watertight. Mr. Sauvé’s team collected water samples throughout the spring and fall of 2008 — and always after a particularly heavy rain.

In every sample collected, Mr. Sauvé’s team found traces of caffeine, leading the team to conclude that Montreal’s storm drains are “widely contaminated” by leaking human sewage.

Mr. Sauvé’s team tried testing water samples for carbamazepine, a common anti-seizure drug, but the researchers could find no correlation between the drug and the presence of fecal matter.

On the other hand, any water sample “containing more than the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee diluted in an Olympic-size swimming pool is definitely contaminated with fecal [bacteria],” according to a prepared release by the university.

Luckily, with the country’s coffee and energy drink consumption on the rise, caffeine levels in Canadian urine show no sign of diminishing. Tim Hortons, which holds an estimated 80% share of the Canadian coffee market, sells more than three million cups of coffee per day.

For now, Mr. Sauvé’s caffeine test may only be regionally effective. In South America, caffeine could just as easily be leached into the water system by coffee, tea and cola plantations.

Presumably, the test could also prove ineffective in heavily Mormon communities where the drinking of coffee and tea is frowned upon.

Mr. Sauvé says the caffeine test is a valuable tool in preventing municipalities from ducking responsibility for a leaky sewerage system.

“If there’s too much caffeine in the water, there’s no way a city can say it’s because there are too many dogs,” said Mr. Sauvé.

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