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Artificial sweeteners — sucralose in particular — are serving a purpose beyond weight-loss. Researchers and water resource managers have found that Sucralose can be used as a “tracer” — a substance that can help identify where contamination comes from. This ability is important for maintaining water quality, both in surface waters and in drinking water supplies.

“The whole purpose of having an artificial sweetener is that the body doesn’t recognize it as fuel, so you don’t use it for energy,” says Piero Gardinali, associate professor of Chemistry at Florida International University. “We have seen that if you put it in a wastewater treatment plant, nothing happens to it because the microorganisms don’t recognize it as food, either.” That means sucralose enters a wastewater treatment plant with raw sewage and leaves with treated water being discharged to the environment. It’s virtually impossible to test for every contaminant that could be in wastewater — but if water quality managers detect sucralose in a river, for example, they can use it as a red flag that some amount of wastewater is present.

Henry Briceño, a research professor at Florida International University, says he is working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to apply it to assessing the impacts of Hurricane Irma. Briceño has found that sucralose can potentially be used not just as a tracer but also as an indicator, which means it can help to determine the extent of the problem.

Read the full article on how our FIU faculty is helping improve water quality.