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UQ Australia wastewater Census 2021

Project Number # 3047

SewAus Census 2021 – understanding chemical and biological hazards through analysis of wastewater and biosolids


Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is a surveillance approach increasingly being used to assess temporal and spatial trends in population chemical consumption, use and exposure. WBE is rapidly expanding from its earliest applications, to measure the use of illicit drugs, to monitoring chemical biomarkers for populations. These biomarkers can provide information on consumption/exposure to chemicals and, more recently, population health by monitoring patterns of pharmaceutical use and/or biomarkers of disease [1]. WBE provides data complementary to traditional survey techniques, with clear advantages in cost effectiveness and objectivity [2, 3]. WBE is currently applied in more than 70 countries worldwide, including through the collaborative network, the Sewage Analysis CORe Group Europe (SCORE) [4] (co-founded by Prof Kevin Thomas, Director of QAEHS). WBE has been embraced by key lawenforcement and drug addiction agencies in Europe through the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). In Australia, our work on WBE has led to funding of the world-first National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program (NWDMP), supported by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC), to routinely monitor consumption trends of a range of substances in wastewater covering ~50% of the Australian population [2]. Recently, WBE has been extended to monitor other parameters of public health importance, such as biomarkers that
are used in clinical or biomonitoring contexts [1, 5-7]. The vision for our original SewAus Census 2016 project, that was shared by all partners and has led to the proposed new project, was to evaluate the feasibility of a nationwide sampling program coordinated to link with the ABS Census [8, 9]. We envisaged that this approach, once validated, would subsequently lead to the development of a long-term collaboration with industry and government to assess changes in the use of chemicals and the success of regulatory interventions. Such an approach also represents a key tool for elucidating potential associations between chemical use/exposure and human and ecosystem health. As we hoped, SewAus Census 2016 successfully provided a unique platform to link accurate population information with chemical flows in and out of WWTPs. The initial SewAus
program has delivered numerous outputs (~30 journal publications (e.g. [1, 6, 8-25]), several book chapters (e.g. [5]) and >20 presentations in Australia and overseas) that have clearly demonstrated how systematic sampling and analysis of wastewater influent provide relevant data to a wide range of fields. The ‘SewAus’ approach is rapidly being adopted by end-users across many fields, from resource management to crime prevention, sociology and health care. The impact of the SewAus Census 2016 project was crucial to the adoption of wastewater-based monitoring of licit and illicit drugs in Australia [3]. We have also been invited to support the development of similar wastewater sampling programs elsewhere (e.g. Canada, New Zealand and China).
This proposed new project (SewAus Census 2021) will harness and enhance the outcomes of SewAus Census 2016. Key research and knowledge gaps that have been identified over the last four years will be addressed in this new project and take the ‘SewAus’ approach to a new level. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Expanding the scope to include biological agents: antimicrobial resistance (AMR, i.e. the ability of microbes to resist the effects of antimicrobial drugs such as antibiotics) is an emerging cause of global concern due to adverse impacts on population health through ineffective treatment options [26]. WBE has the potential to provide quantitative evaluations of drug (e.g. antibiotic) usage, as well as measure AMR genes and bacteria present in wastewater from a population. Pilot (unpublished) data generated by our team suggest that this may be a viable surveillance approach for AMR across Australia.
  • Expanding the metadata collections to understand the trends measured using WBE: SewAus Census 2016 focused on the demographic and socioeconomic metadata provided by the ABS Census to explain patterns of drug and other chemical exposure in the context of population characteristics. The proposed project will look towards new and complementary metadata collections to increase our power to explain chemical and biological hazard trends. New information sources will include, for example, chemical sources (e.g. production data, consumer product sales data, chemicals released from specific industries or facilities e.g. hospitals), chemical regulation data, data collected by government agencies (e.g. crime and offence, health, traffic or other survey data), and monitoring data for chemical and biological hazards in receiving environments.
  • Expanding our measurement capabilities to include, for example, previously inaccessible catchments or to identify emerging chemicals of concern: by integrating WBE with new time-integrative sampling capabilities and emerging technologies in nontarget analysis, the ‘SewAus’ approach has the potential to generate reliable data at high resolution across large geographical and time scales. Our team has developed and calibrated a new time-integrative passive sampling approach that has the potential to increase the application of WBE at remote sites or where autosamplers are not operated [27]. Recent advances in high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) are paving the way for targeted and untargeted analysis based on scanning a sample for the full chemical mass range; i.e. suspect screening (comparing scanned data to reference libraries to identify chemicals in a sample) and screening for unknown chemicals (elucidating chemical structures to identify specific chemicals) [28]. HRMS has the potential for high sensitivity, selectivity and speed in detecting chemicals over large sample sets, even without prior knowledge of the pollutants present. Combined with WBE, therefore, these advanced analytical techniques may be used to rapidly identify emerging chemical hazards in humans and our environment.
  • Expanding our focus towards receiving environments downstream of WWTPs: to date, we have focused primarily on ‘upstream’ (wastewater influent and WBE) applications of wastewater monitoring to establish the ‘SewAus’ approach as a proof of concept and investigate chemical exposures in catchment populations. It is recognised, however, that not all chemicals or biological agents are removed by wastewater treatment and the fate of these compounds on receiving environments remains poorly understood. Indeed for fluorinated compounds (PFAS), it has been shown that wastewater treatment processes may lead to formation of new PFAS, which are then released to the environment [29]. Investigating WWTP releases is particularly important for AMR as this represents a pathway for resistant microbes back to humans via, for example, the food chain. The ability to relate the levels of chemical and biological hazards released to the environment from WWTPs to the sources of chemicals in the anthroposphere (quantified through, for example, industry sales data) would provide important new information to inform our understanding of the scale of hazards reaching the environment. A new multidisciplinary team of researchers and partners will collaborate on the SewAus Census 2021 project. The outcomes of this project are expected to advance our capabilities to systematically identify emerging chemical and biological hazards and understand the factors that drive changes in the hazards that potentially affect the health of both humans and the environment.


We aim to better understand chemical and biological hazards in Australia through long-term collection and analysis of wastewater and biosolids. Samples collected during the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Census 2021 will form the basis of a rich and unique databank that describes how communities are exposed to chemical and biological hazards, and how these chemicals/biological agents are released into the environment following wastewater treatment. Our previous ARC-funded SewAus Census 2016 project (LP150100364), successfully established the first, globally unique nationwide program for wastewater-based monitoring of chemicals. In SewAus Census 2016, we demonstrated the utility of integrating wastewater-based monitoring with detailed, accurate data on the population that contributed to the sample from the ABS Census. Demographic and socioeconomic data, such as age or occupation, were used to explain patterns of drug use and other chemical exposure in the population. A wide recognition of the value of this work forms
the basis of this new proposal. Together with existing and new stakeholders and end-users, we have developed a followup project to build on the outcomes of SewAus Census 2016 and address a new set of aims (Figure 1). This new proposal has three overarching goals founded on A) advancing sampling and analytical methodologies to expand the scope and reach of wastewater-based monitoring in Australia, B) measuring and understanding spatial and (long-term) temporal trends for chemical and biological hazards, and C) improving quantitative understanding of the sources and fate of chemical and biological hazards released to the environment from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs):

A) ADVANCING SAMPLING AND ANALYSIS – where we aim to i) establish new sampling techniques suitable for biological hazards; ii) evaluate and calibrate time-integrative passive samplers to allow samples to be collected at locations where autosamplers cannot be operated; iii) develop advanced and comprehensive analytical methods, including using suspect and nontarget screening techniques, to identify new and emerging chemical hazards.

B) ASSESSING SPATIOTEMPORAL DEVELOPMENTS – where our aim is to i) measure spatiotemporal trends in wastewater; ii) assess how these trends relate to demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the catchment population (using information from the Census) and respond to intervention strategies (such as chemical regulation, chemical substitution and public education); iii) identify and understand trends in receiving environments.

C) LINKING USE/SOURCES TO FATE AND RELEASE FROM WWTPs – where we aim to i) quantify the flux of chemicals and biological agents through WWTPs (i.e. at the nexus between the anthroposphere (where
chemicals and pathogens are used/applied/originate) and the natural environment) on a continental scale; ii) establish how this flux is influenced by specific wastewater treatment processes and physico-chemical properties of the chemicals; iii) quantitatively describe the entire journey of chemicals by relating the measured fluxes at WWTPs with upstream knowledge of chemical import/use (e.g. from industry data) and downstream knowledge of chemical fate (measured or modelled environmental levels).


Training. A core goal of the proposed project is to increase capacity in Australia in research fields relevant to this proposal so that long-term surveillance can continue beyond the life of this Linkage. Effective training of the Postdoc and four PhD students is therefore paramount. The CI-PI team are the foundation of the research training and mentoring, and will provide all required support to understand (and appreciate) project components from sampling and analysis to data interpretation and writing and how to work within a team. It will be important to establish regular lines of communication between the dispersed teams and, where possible, organise extended visits for PhD students with relevant CI/PI co-supervisors. This can be achieved through side visits following international conference visits (funded through UQ travel schemes) or research stays by PIs at UQ, e.g. CIs McLachlan and Covaci.


Benefits for partners and end-users. Our partner organisations include government agencies for environment, health and crime prevention; urban utilities with a mandate to treat wastewater and protect the receiving environment; industry which aims to assure safe use and disposal of products. All our partners benefit from the new knowledge and capabilities that will be developed through SewAus Census 2021. The knowledge of trends in chemical and biological hazards (in humans and the environment) and emerging new hazards is invaluable to manage their collective responsibilities to safeguard human and environmental health, optimise wastewater treatment processes, regulate chemicals and prevent crime. Our surveillance technique also represents a cost-effective approach to monitor the effectiveness of partner organisations’ intervention strategies to limit or eliminate chemical/drug usage or exposures. New (and the first) knowledge on AMR using Australia-wide wastewater analysis is of particular benefit to health agencies who need robust data to assess the scale of the issue and identify when new AMR microbes appear in the environment. A further benefit to partners and end-users is the maintenance of a comprehensive archive of longitudinal samples. Where partners have new research questions in the future, we can develop methods to assess these samples retrospectively.

Strategic research alliances. The commitment of a diverse range of agencies to partner in this proposed project and the acknowledged success of our previous SewAus Census 2016 project, provide convincing support that our project’s outcomes are expected to be of high interest to government, regulators and industry. This is a solid foundation for wider strategic research alliances to be established during this Linkage and continue into the future. This project is the first partnership with Unilever and stems from a new strategic alliance between Unilever, UQ, Stockholm University and others. Partnership with CSIRO and WRA are new alliances that will greatly benefit outcomes and shape the project.

Benefits to Australian end-users. Economic, environmental and social benefits for Australians are expected from this Linkage. The economic benefits of recognising new chemical and biological hazards (both in humans and in releases to the environment) and responding to them in a timely manner are enormous. These include cost savings in environmental remediation, health care provision, and legal costs to establish culpability. The environmental benefits are also clear, through avoiding adverse effects on ecosystem health (e.g. loss of keystone species due to habitat contamination and loss) and other systems, such as our food chain. The societal benefits include increased knowledge of where and why chemical and biological exposures are occurring, which enables effective allocation of resources to establish intervention strategies and other community support and health care services.

Strategies to disseminate and promote research outcomes. Our proven communication strategy for dissemination of research outcomes is outlined below. An additional valuable dissemination of our research outcomes is through granting access to the project’s samples and data for research by other academic, government or industry organisations. For SewAus Census 2021, we plan to establish a governance structure (including a specimen bank/databank Steering Committee) to manage sample/data access. Conditions for requests will be defined and requests will be assessed and approved by the Committee. Our team will actively promote this opportunity during presentations and at meetings. We expect this to lead to new collaborations and future benefits to our team as well as end-users and industry.

Value for money. WBE is inherently a cost-effective surveillance approach covering a majority of the Australian population, compared to, for example, traditional survey techniques. In addition, our project brings together considerable in-kind contributions from a host of named partner organisations, but also generous participation and contribution from numerous unnamed WWTP operators and Councils. This voluntary participation contributes to the project through sampling and providing information on details of the specific catchment and WWTP operations.


1. Choi, PM, et al., Population histamine burden assessed using wastewater-based epidemiology: The association of 1,4methylimidazole acetic acid and fexofenadine. Environ Int, 2018. 120: 172-180.

2. O'Brien, JW, et al., National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program – Report 1. 2017, UQ & UniSA: Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC). p.64.

3. Tscharke, BJ, et al., National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program – Report 8. 2019, UQ & UniSA: ACIC. p.84.

4. Gonzalez-Marino, I, et al., Spatio-temporal assessment of illicit drug use at large scale: evidence from 7 years of international wastewater monitoring. Addiction, 2019.

5. Choi, PM, et al., Mining population exposure and community health via wastewater-based epidemiology, in A New Paradigm for Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology: From Concepts to
Insights, G Jiang, X Li, Editors. 2020, Springer: Singapore. p.99-114.

6. Choi, PM, et al., Wastewater-based epidemiology biomarkers: Past, present and future. TrAC, 2018. 105: 453-469.

7. Daughton, CG, Monitoring wastewater for assessing community health: Sewage Chemical-Information Mining. Sci Total Environ, 2018. 619-620: 748-764.

8. O'Brien, JW, et al., A National Wastewater Monitoring Program for a better understanding of public health: A case study using the Australian Census. Environ Int, 2019. 122: 400-411.

9. Tscharke, BJ, et al., Harnessing the Power of the Census: Characterizing Wastewater Treatment Plant Catchment Populations for Wastewater-Based Epidemiology. Environ Sci Technol, 2019. 53: 10303-11.

10. Lai, FY, et al., Spatial variations in the consumption of illicit stimulant drugs across Australia: A nationwide application of wastewater-based epidemiology. Sci Total Environ, 2016. 568: 810-8.

11. Prichard, J, et al., Wastewater Analysis of Substance Use: Implications for Law, Policy and Research. J Law Med, 2017. 24: 837-849.

12. Lai, FY, et al., Measuring spatial and temporal trends of nicotine and alcohol consumption in Australia using wastewater-based epidemiology. Addiction, 2018. 113: 1127-1136.

13. Prichard, J, et al., 'Ice rushes', data shadows and methylamphetamine use in rural towns: wastewater analysis. Curr Iss Crim Just, 2018. 29: 195-208.

14. Been, F, et al., Analysis of N,N-dimethylamphetamine in wastewater - a pyrolysis marker and synthesis impurity of methamphetamine. Drug Test Anal, 2018. 10: 1590-1598.

15. Wilkins, C, et al., Comparing methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine, codeine and methadone use between the Auckland region and four Australian states using WBE. NZ Med J, 2018. 131: 12-20.

16. Gallen, C, et al., A mass estimate of perfluoroalkyl substance release from Australian wastewater treatment plants. Chemosphere, 2018. 208: 975-983.

17. Gao, J, et al., Enantiomeric profiling of amphetamine and methamphetamine in wastewater: A 7-year study in regional and urban QLD, Australia. Sci Total Environ, 2018. 643: 827-834.

18. Bade, R, et al., LC-HRMS suspect screening to show spatial patterns of New Psychoactive Substances use in Australia. Sci Total Environ, 2018. 650: 2181-2187.

19. Thai, PK, et al., Analyzing wastewater samples collected during census to determine the correction factors of drugs for wastewater-based epidemiology: The Case of codeine and methadone. Environ Sci Technol Lett, 2018. 6: 265-269.

20. O'Malley, E, et al., Per capita loads of organic UV filters in Australian wastewater influent. Sci Total Environ, 2019. 662: 134-140.

21. Mackie, RS, et al., Trends in nicotine consumption between 2010 and 2017 in an Australian city using the WBE approach. Environ Int, 2019. 125: 184-190.

22. Shimko, KM, et al., A pilot wastewater-based epidemiology assessment of anabolic steroid use in QLD, Australia. Drug Test Anal, 2019. 11: 937-949.

23. Nguyen, HT, et al., Temporal trends of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in the influent of two of the largest wastewater treatment plants in Australia. Emerg Contam, 2019. 5: 211-18.

24. Zheng, Q, et al., New approach in the measurement of long-term alcohol consumption trends: Application of WBE in an Australian regional city. Drug Alcohol Depen, 2019.

25. Zheng, Q, et al., Uncertainties in estimating alcohol and tobacco consumption by wastewater-based epidemiology. Curr Opin Environ Sci Health, 2019. 9: 13-18.

26. WHO, Global action plan on antimicrobial resistance 2015. 2015: WHO Document Production Services, Geneva, Switzerland.

27. McKay, S, et al., Calibration and validation of a microporous polyethylene passive sampler for quantitative estimation of illicit drug and pharmaceutical and personal care product (PPCP) concentrations in wastewater influent. Sci Total Environ, 2019: 135891.

28. Andra, SS, et al., Trends in the application of high-resolution mass spectrometry for human biomonitoring: An analytical primer to studying the environmental chemical space of the human exposome. Environ Int, 2017. 100: 32-61.

29. Thompson, J., et al., Removal of PFOS, PFOA and other perfluoroalkyl acids at water reclamation plants in South East Queensland Australia. Chemosphere, 2011. 82(1): p. 9-17