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Scientists Want to Put a Microphone in Your Toilet

The sounds people make when they pee and poop could be the key to tracking illness outbreaks

spinner image close up of a hand closing a toilet lid

As odd as it may sound, researchers believe that the noise you make in the bathroom could someday in the not-too-distant future alert public health officials to outbreaks of cholera and other diseases — an idea that goes well beyond today’s efforts in tracking COVID-19 through wastewater samples.

In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to help track the presence of the virus. Basically, water flushed from toilets is tested for the presence of coronavirus when it reaches community treatment facilities.

​The sound of gastrointestinal disease

Researchers are now hoping to get the poop on emerging outbreaks of other diseases, such as cholera, directly from your home toilet.

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Using a noninvasive microphone sensor to monitor toilets, they claim they could identify bowel diseases without collecting any identifiable information about the toilet user. Maia Gatlin, a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, explained the concept at the Acoustical Society of America’s 2022 conference.

The sounds people make when they pee or poop are similar. Urination typically creates a consistent tone, and defecation a singular tone. Diarrhea, on the other hand, is more random. The researchers created a database of recordings of these bodily functions that was fed into a machine learning algorithm that learned to classify each event based on its features.

The algorithm, they say, can classify the event as either diarrheal or non-diarrheal with up to 98.1 percent accuracy. (Study results have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.)

By correctly identifying outbreaks of diarrhea, public health officials could track the spread of cholera, a bacterial disease that induces diarrhea. Cholera is responsible for about 150,000 yearly deaths worldwide. Alerting health officials early to a potential outbreak would help them allocate resources and aid, the researchers said.

“The hope is that this sensor, which is small in footprint and noninvasive in approach, could be deployed to areas where cholera outbreaks are a persistent risk,” Gatlin said in a statement.

The algorithm is also capable of classifying other excretion events, such as urination, flatulence and defecation, that could help monitor for other gastrointestinal diseases.

“The sensor could also be used in disaster zones (where water contamination leads to spread of waterborne pathogens), or even in nursing and hospice care facilities to automatically monitor bowel movements of patients,” wrote Gatlin. “Perhaps someday, our algorithm can be used with existing in-home smart devices to monitor one’s own bowel movements and health.”

Visualizing poop’s health story 

Duke University has a similar vision, imagining a world where “important health information is leveraged, instead of flushed down the toilet.”

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At the Duke Smart Toilet Lab, research is underway to develop:

  • The sampling toilet: “a hands-free, flush-and-forget technology that collects and packages human excreta for individual analysis.”
  • Technologies for automated tracking of bowel movement characteristics.
  • Building-wide surveillance of pathogens to enable rapid detection of disease outbreaks.

​Rather than sound, researchers at Duke’s Center for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Infectious Disease are exploring ways to use visual imaging to monitor stools as they pass through the toilet.

The goal is to give gastroenterologists the information they need to provide appropriate treatment for chronic issues such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Using machine learning, they created an algorithm that can analyze stool images to accurately classify its form 85 percent of the time based on a commonly used clinical scale.

The device, which is not yet available to the public, could be attached to an individual toilet where data collected over time on a patient’s stool form (i.e., loose, normal or constipated) could be used by gastroenterologists for diagnosis and treatment of conditions.

“We are optimistic about patient willingness to use this technology because it’s something that can be installed in their toilet’s pipes and doesn’t require the patient to do anything other than flush,” Sonia Grego, founding director of the Duke Smart Toilet Lab, said in a statement. “This could be especially useful for patients who may not be able to report their conditions, such as those who live in a long-term care facility.”​