Spending sweet days by the river just got literal, at least along the Grand River in Ontario, where Canadian researchers recently discovered shockingly high levels of artificial sweeteners in the waterway.
A joint effort by scientists from both Environment Canada and the University of Waterloo uncovered saccharin, sucralose, cyclamate, and acesulfame along nearly two dozen Grand sample sites, and through subsequent analysis discovered a higher concentration of these compounds than ever before recorded “in surface waters … anywhere in the world.”
The results of the study, published Dec. 11 in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE, additionally revealed that city water supplies sourcing the Grand had elevated concentrations of these four compounds, suggesting municipal filtration systems were not enough to eradicate their presence.
The river, which currently provides drinking water for nearly a million people in Canada, eventually ends up in Lake Erie. Some 11 million U.S. residents rely on Erie for their own drinking water, according to the EPA.
All of these compounds are common in myriad consumable products, but the most obvious is diet soda, which health experts have long warned can be far worse for the human body than regular, sugar-sweetened beverages.
“Findings from a variety of studies show that routine consumption of diet sodas, even one per day, can be connected to higher likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure,” says Susan E. Swithers, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University, “in addition to contributing to weight gain.”
Researchers behind the study made no ecological health claims based on their findings, stating that the “effects of artificial sweeteners on aquatic biota in rivers and in the downstream Great Lakes are largely unknown.” They did, however, make the point that “aquatic organisms likely experience long-term exposure to significant concentrations.”
Surprisingly (horrifyingly?), these concentrations have actually been beneficial for those charged with tracking wastewater systems. That’s because most of these chemical sweeteners–and acesulfame in particular–are very difficult for the body to break down, so tracking their presence can help identify leaks in a system and map exactly where human wastewater is ending up. Basically it provides an automatic differentiation between human waste and, say, farm waste, since you don’t normally see a cow sucking on a Big Gulp.
This perfunctory “benefit” aside, the public at large still seems convinced that diet sodas are a healthy alternative to naturally sweetened beverages, much to the chagrin of health experts like Swithers. U.S. residents alone slurp down roughly four billion gallons of it every year.
“The concern that these non-caloric sweeteners might not be healthy is a message that many people do not want to hear,” adds Swithers. “It’s more important than ever that the science is considered and that the public understands what the science says in order to help them make the best health decisions.”
Let’s hope they grasp that understanding before the fish start getting diabetes, too!