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Scientists Find Large Amounts of Precious Metals in Wastewater

08 November, 2017

In recent months, stories about sewers getting clogged have made international headlines. For example, a so-called "fatberg," a mass of grease and diapers, clogged London's sewers.

A new study has found stranger materials in a wastewater system: large amounts of rare and precious metals.

Researchers examined 64 wastewater treatment centers across Switzerland. A government press release says it was the first study on trace elements in wastewater in an industrialized country.

Swiss flushes gold and silver into sewer
Swiss flushes gold and silver into sewer

The researchers found 3000 kg of silver and 43 kilograms of gold in effluent and sludge from the centers. The value of the materials was somewhere around $3.1 million dollars.

The silver and gold were in the form of tiny particles. The researchers said the particles were most likely released during manufacturing of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, or watches.

Bas Vriens is one of the researchers. "You hear stories about an angry man or woman throwing jewelry down the toilet, but we didn't find any rings, unfortunately," he said.

"The levels of gold and silver were very small, in the micrograms, or even nanograms, but when you add them up it's pretty substantial."

The researchers also found large amounts of rare earth minerals.

The level of metal concentrations did not violate Swiss laws. They were removed before the water entered the drinking water system.

Vriens cautioned people against trying to find precious metals in drinking water. "It wouldn't make sense for people to boil their tap water to recover gold or silver because it has already been filtered out before it re-enters the drinking water supply," Vriens said.

I'm John Russell.

John Revill reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

clog – v. to slowly form a block in (something, such as a pipe or street) so that things cannot move through quickly or easily

diaper – n. a piece of cloth or other material that is placed between a baby's legs and fastened around the waist to hold body waste

grease – n. an oily substance

trace – n. a very small amount of something

effluent – n. liquid (such as sewage or industrial chemicals) that is released as waste

sludge – n. a soft, thick material that is produced in various industrial processes (such as in the treatment of sewage)

toilet – n. a large bowl attached to a pipe that is used for getting rid of bodily waste and then flushed with water

unfortunately – adv. used to say that something bad or unlucky has happened