Stomach-churning show reveals the grim contents of London's 130-tonne monster 'fatberg' of human waste

The so-called ‘fatberg’ is 820ft (250 metres) long and formed from a mixture of fat, grease, oil, wet wipes and sanitary products

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Lurking underneath the streets of London, a giant clump of congealed human waste recently hit the headlines.

The so-called "fatberg" – a name coined in London – was 820ft (250 metres) long and formed from a mixture of fat, grease, oil, wet wipes and sanitary products. It weighed the same as 11 double-decker buses. 

Thames Water recently confirmed it wants to convert part of the 130-tonne fatberg into biodiesel, providing enough fuel to run 350 London Routemaster buses for a day, and now Channel 4 has carried out an "autopsy" on the beastly lump to uncover how it grew so big. 

The results, due to be broadcast in Fatberg Autopsy: Secrets of the Sewers tonight at 9pm, uncovered the usual items found in such fatbergs, including condoms, sanitary towels, nappies, wet wipes and cotton buds, yet also unearthed something much more sinister – a range of infectious bacteria resistant to antibiotics, known as "superbugs." 

 In particular, the tests found strains of listeria, campylobacter and E.coli that were able to survive even when treated with drugs. Superbugs can be life-threatening and the discovery of such strains in the fatberg could threaten the public in the event of a sewer blockage, which would force the bacteria back into homes and businesses.  

Fatbergs are becoming a growing problem across the UK as our sewage infrastructure struggles to cope with our changing habits. Channel 4's programme sees presenter Rick Edwards and pathology technician Carla Valentine working with scientists to examine the contents of the fatberg. 

The worst culprit was fats and oils, namely cooking oils, as well as those in cream washes and moisturisers that go down the drain during a shower or bath. This fatberg was also extensively made up of wet wipes, which aren't meant to be flushed down the toilet. Civil engineering consultant Andy Drinkwater explained that “the fat sticks to the side of the pipe, the wet wipes come down and stick on the fat, other fat comes down and sticks to the wet wipes and that adds to the mass of the fatberg”.

The fatberg autopsy also uncovered evidence of street drugs and other pharmaceuticals including small plastic ‘baggies’, made up of a needle and syringe. Forensic analysis found chemical traces of a cocktail of drugs such as a high proportion of salicylic acid, found in topical creams for acne, and paracetamol, as well as evidence of hordenine and ostarine, both of which can be found in performance enhancing sports supplements. Ostarine, which is used for muscle gain, is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list and is not licenced for medical use in the UK. 

Fatberg on display

From 9 February until 1 July, the fatberg will feature as part of the Museum of London's City Now City Future exhibition as part of a display, unsurprisingly, called "Fatberg!". The project is aimed at generating discussions around the impact of modern day living. By the year 2050, over 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban environments, claims the exhibition. 

Fatberg! will show how fatbergs are created, the processes of obtaining and displaying such an object and how the rest of the fatberg was recycled.  

“The discovery of this fatberg highlights one of the many issues London has to deal with as it grows and evolves," said Sharon Ament, Director at the Museum of London. "Our year-long season, City Now City Future, explores what the future holds for people living in urban environments. It is important for the Museum of London to display genuine curiosities from past and present London."

What is a fatberg?

Fatbergs form when people flush things like wet wipes and sanitary products down the toilet, or pour fat or oil down their kitchen sink.

This particular fatberg was discovered underneath Whitechapel Road, where it has damaged the Victorian sewer system, and the work to remove it lasted October.

Commenting on plans to use part of it for biodiesel, Thames Water waste network manager Alex Saunders said: “It may be a monster, but the Whitechapel fatberg deserves a second chance. We’ve therefore teamed up with leading waste to power firm Argent Energy to transform what was once an evil, gut-wrenching, rancid blob into pure green fuel.”

“It’s the perfect solution for the environment and our customers as we work towards our target to self-generate 33 per cent of the electricity we use from renewable sources by 2020,” Saunders continued. “It also means the Whitechapel fatberg will get a new lease of life as renewable, biodegradable fuel powering an engine instead of causing the misery of sewer flooding.”

This is not the first time a fatberg has been discovered in London, but the idea to burn it as fuel is new.

“We have a problem with fatbergs, both in sewer networks and at our sewage treatment works,” continued Saunders. The only way to remove a fatberg is blasting it with high-pressure water jets and sucking up the remains.
“Previously, we’ve either extracted the fatberg out of the pipes and sent it to landfill, or broken it down and put it back through the sewage treatment process. Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone.”