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Grand River has highest levels of artificial sweeteners on record


A file photo of soda cans. 

The Grand River dumps about 81,850 to 188,650 cans of soda pop into Lake Erie every single day.

Okay, not literally but that’s roughly the equivalent of artificial sweeteners that the Grand empties into the lake. Researchers with Environment Canada and the University of Waterloo discovered record levels of acesulfame, sucralose, saccharin and cyclamate — artificial sweeteners found in diet pop and toothpaste — in the Grand River. They found “the highest reported concentrations of these compounds in surface waters to date anywhere.”

These compounds do not degrade easily: they exit the human body intact, pass through wastewater treatment plants and are discharged to the local watershed.

John Spoelstra, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo as well as a researcher with Environment Canada, called it a good news story because they serve as ideal tracers of human wastewater.

The sweeteners could be quite useful for researchers who want to trace where waste water ends up. They could be really useful in tracing waste water that seeps into groundwater via septic systems, Spoelstra said.

“We now have the technology to detect waste water in the groundwater,” he said. “It will help learn about effluents.”

Another advantage of sweeteners is that they can be used to distinguish human from agricultural waste in surface and groundwater systems, thus allowing regulators to pinpoint the sources of pollution.

Spoelstra and his researchers analyzed water samples from 23 sites along the river and from municipal household taps from Brantford, Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo.

The sweeteners are not considered toxic but there is very little research on what sort of impact they might have on fish, plants and other wildlife in the river, said Spoelstra.

It is an obvious area for future research.

Raveena Aulakh is the Toronto Star’s environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh


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It is plainly untrue that these artificial sweeteners are all considered to be basically non-toxic. In her book The Mood Cure, psychologist and nutritionist Julia Ross has discussed at some length how aspartame is a major cause of depression.

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