Fatbergs: The monster lurking below
If you haven’t been paying attention to sewer-related news throughout the past few years, you might have missed that fatbergs are a thing. Large (sometimes hundreds of metres long), congealed lumps of fat and other substances, fatbergs have been clogging up the sewer systems under major cities like London, Melbourne, Baltimore and Cardiff.
Just a quick Google search of the word ‘fatberg’ turns up a trove of related videos and news that could gross anyone out. Fatbergs now have their own museum exhibition and were even the subject of a prime time documentary, Fatberg Autopsy, which is exactly as captivating and weird as it sounds. And just as our fascination for these grotesque reflections of modern life has grown faster than a fatberg in a sewer, so is our understanding of them.
These beasts begin to form when large amounts of cooking oils, fats and grease are dumped into drains, where they thicken. Adding to the frequency of fatbergs is the increased usage of wet wipes, which don’t break down in drainage pipes, but instead team up with the congealed cooking oils to form a monster from a subterranean horror film. Fatbergs are particularly susceptible in old pipes or pipes with rough walls where debris can get trapped and build up.
And despite its moniker, documented fatbergs are mostly made up of wet wipes, which account for 93 percent of the material blocking sewers, while actual fat and grease make up only 0.5 percent. In one case, the fatberg in London had grown to weigh as much as a blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed.
Studying products of human behaviour, like fatbergs, can provide a lot of information into how people in these cities live.
Simon Hudson, Technical Director of Sport and Specialised Analytical Services at LGC, has been involved with method development and analysis for many projects looking into identifying the makeup of substances found in public systems, like fatbergs. In addition to analysing samples for Fatberg Autopsy, Simon has also worked with scientists from King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust and King’s Health Partners, Hull York Medical School and other institutions to analyse anonymised pooled urine from UK cities.
By using various analytical methods on samples from street urinals, the scientists have been able to provide a geographical trend analysis of the recreational drugs and novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that are being used, showing the most common drugs in specific cities.
Studies on recreational drug use have traditionally been done by self-reported user surveys, which are helpful but flawed if respondents either don’t know what drugs they are taking or don’t disclose everything they’ve used. By analysing samples from urinals, these methods can be used to confirm actual drugs being used and can be particularly useful for public health initiatives in identifying new psychoactive substances that may not have been reported or known to officials yet. It also provides insight into common potential adulterants of drugs.
By taking pooled samples from street urinals near night clubs and bars, these studies provide a snapshot of what is happening inside the night life across UK cities.
Findings include everything from nicotine and caffeine to cocaine, cannabis, ketamine, methamphetamine, anabolic steroids and several uncontrolled psychoactive substances. In one specific study¹, cocaine and 3,4-methylenedioxy–methamphetamine (MDMA, Ecstasy) were the most common recreational drugs to turn up, while morphine and methadone were detected in seven and six cities, respectively.
Like his analysis of fatbergs, Simon’s work on urine samples provides insight into the hidden aspects of modern life, the things that aren’t talked about over coffee or seen while heading into the office. They’re also valuable in shaping public health knowledge and responses to potential issues.
If you’re interested in learning more about our science, read Simon’s various publications on pooled urine analysis listed below.
¹Archer, J.R.H, S. Hudson, O. Jackson, T. Yamamoto, C. Lovett, H.M. Lee, S. Rao, L. Hunter, P.I. Dargan, and D.M. Wood (2015). Analysis of anonymized pooled urine in nine UK cities: variation in classical recreational drug, novel psychoactive substance and anabolic steroid use. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. 108(12), pp. 929-933.
- H Archer, P. I. Dargan, S. Hudson, S. Davies, M. Puchnarewicz, A. T. Kicman, J. Ramsey, F. Measham, M. Wood, A. Johnston, and D. M. Wood (2013). Taking the Pissoir – a novel and reliable way of knowing what drugs are being used in nightclubs. Journal of Substance Use.00 (0), pp. 1-5.
- H. Archer, P. I. Dargan, H. M. D. Lee, S. Hudson & D. M. Wood (2014) Trend analysis of anonymised pooled urine from portable street urinals in central London identifies variation in the use of novel psychoactive substances, Clinical Toxicology, 52:3, 160-165, DOI: 10.3109/15563650.2014.885982