Water Efficiency

Fatberg Forensics

Sewer deposits reveal gritty details

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Just as archaeologists sift through dusty middens to discover the secrets of our human ancestors, today anthropologists are able to analyze greasy pipeline deposits beneath urban areas to uncover the truths of modern society.

These oily deposits, also known as fatbergs, are composed of accumulated fats, oils, and greases (FOGs), and whatever else is flushed down the sewer. They lurk beneath every major city—Melbourne, Baltimore, and New York—but London has produced two of the most notable specimens: the South Bank fatberg and the Whitechapel fatberg.

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The UK spends about 80 million pounds each year to destroy fatbergs. British utility, Thames Water, reportedly spent weeks blasting through the Whitechapel clog, which weighed in at more than 150 tons and stretched longer than 2 football fields (820 feet). It was so monumentally gross, in fact, that portions of the fatberg were preserved and are now on display at the Museum of London.  

Dissecting these clogs is a nasty yet revelatory business. British television station Channel 4 is exploring these sewer system deposits for clues about the above-ground societies that produce them. In collaboration with Thames Water, the local water utility, the station has developed a television series called Fatberg Autopsy: Secrets of the Sewers.

They sort through the grime, extracting syringes, candy wrappers, and condoms, and making inferences with forensic precision. The clog’s chemical makeup also offers a window into the gritty details of modern society. Mass spectrometry analysis revealed compounds such as cocaine, MDMA, muscle-promoting ostarine, and skin-clarifying salicylic acid.

It’s fascinating to consider how a sewer system can tell the story of those who live above it. And it serves as a powerful reminder that our everyday lifestyle choices produce downstream effects.

“Please only flush the three Ps (pee, poo, and toilet paper),” Thames Water waste networks manager Alex Saunders said in a news release. “Don’t feed the fatberg.”

How does your organization handle FOGs? What do you think that your city’s sewers would reveal about its residents?

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