Assessing population-level stress through glucocorticoid hormone monitoring in wastewater

Erin M. Driver, Adam J. Gushgari, Joshua C. Steele, Devin A. Bowes, Rolf U. Halden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Stress is oftentimes overlooked in societies, despite its life-threatening impact. Here, we assessed the feasibility of measuring endogenous stress hormones to estimate population-level stress by wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE). Two primary glucocorticoids, cortisol and cortisone, were monitored in wastewater by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS), to assess changes in these physiological markers of stress in a student population (n = 26,000 ± 7100) on a university campus in the southwestern U.S. Daily composite samples were collected for seven consecutive days each month during the Fall (Autumn) 2017 and Spring 2018 academic semesters (n = 134). Reproducible weekly patterns were seen in stress hormone excretion, with the highest levels occurring on Mondays (124 ± 44 μg d−1 per person) and Tuesdays (127 ± 54 μg d−1 per person) and the lowest on Sundays (87 ± 32 μg d−1 per person). Stress levels on weekdays (defined by class schedules Monday-Thursday) were significantly higher than on weekends (p < 0.05). During both Fall and Spring semesters, per person stress levels of these hormones were significantly higher (p < 0.05) during the first two months of each semester, 162 ± 28 μg d−1 per person (August), 104 ± 29 μg d−1 per person (September), 180 ± 14 μg d−1 per person (January), and 114 ± 54 μg d−1 per person (February) than in the remaining measured weeks in the semester, including finals week captured in both semesters. Overall Spring semester stress levels (113 ± 45 μg d−1 per person) were significantly higher than the Fall (94 ± 42 μg d−1 per person), p < 0.01. This study is the first to demonstrate the utility of endogenous biomarkers, specifically glucocorticoid hormones, to monitor population health status (in this instance community stress) in near real-time by wastewater assessments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number155961
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Sep 10 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • College campus
  • Cortisol
  • Cortisone
  • Stability study
  • Students
  • Wastewater-based epidemiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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