Last Septem­ber, Thames Wa­ter made a star­tling dis­cov­ery. Lurk­ing in the sew­ers be­neath Whitechapel was a mon­strous 130-tonne ‘fatberg’. Now, the Mu­seum of Lon­don is putting it on dis­play. We asked SHARON ROBIN­SON-CALVER, head of con­ser­va­tion and col­lec­tio

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What makes a fatberg? A fatberg is a con­gealed mass of fats, oils and greases, plus things that go down the toi­let that shouldn’t be flushed, such as nap­pies, wet wipes, san­i­tary prod­ucts and con­doms. So pretty un­pleas­ant re­ally! The Whitechapel fatberg re­ally cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion be­cause it was the biggest one that we’d ever found – over 250 me­tres long.

Why did the Mu­seum of Lon­don de­cide to dis­play a fatberg?

Many of the items in our col­lec­tion have been dis­cov­ered in cesspits – things such as teapots, bot­tles and coins – and these tell us a lot about how peo­ple once lived. In some re­spects, fat­bergs are no dif­fer­ent – they’re hu­man-made ob­jects that re­flect mod­ern is­sues such as pop­u­la­tion ex­pan­sion, changes in diet, and the pres­sures we’re putting on Lon­don’s Vic­to­rian sewer sys­tem. It’s an im­por­tant part of the story of the city, show­ing the chal­lenges that ur­ban liv­ing can cre­ate.

How did you go about get­ting a sam­ple?

When we first heard about the mon­ster fatberg, we asked Thames Wa­ter to take some sam­ples for us. To ex­ca­vate it, they blast the fatberg with high-pres­sure wa­ter jets, break­ing it into smaller chunks that can be sucked up into a tanker. The fatberg is toxic – it off-gasses car­bon monox­ide and hy­dro­gen sul­phide, and there’s a real risk of bac­te­rial dis­eases – so we spent some time analysing the sam­ples to un­der­stand how we could han­dle and dis­play them safely.

What’s the best so­lu­tion you came up with?

Once we’d X-rayed the sam­ples to check for things like hy­po­der­mic nee­dles, we slowly air-dried them at room tem­per­a­ture, which turned them from their sloppy, mushy con­sis­tency to the harder, more ox­i­dised ma­te­rial that you get stick­ing to the sewer walls. Once it’s dried and been left to off-gas, the ma­te­rial be­comes chem­i­cally sta­ble enough to dis­play – in a pro­tec­tive case of course! The orig­i­nal fatberg has now been re­moved from the sewer and con­verted into biodiesel, so we’ll be dis­play­ing the last re­main­ing piece – it’s about the size of a shoe­box.

What does the fatberg smell like?

I didn’t come face-to-face with the orig­i­nal fatberg, but I’ve been told that it smelled like a com­bi­na­tion of rot­ting meat and rot­ting nap­pies. By the time I got to ex­pe­ri­ence it my­self, sev­eral weeks later, it wasn’t quite so bad – more like dirty toi­lets.

How can we stop fat­bergs from form­ing in the first place?

There are around 300,000 sewage block­ages in the UK ev­ery year, and wet wipes make up 93 per cent of the prob­lem. So the mes­sage from Thames Wa­ter is only to flush the three ‘p’s down the toi­let: poo, pee and toi­let pa­per. And put cook­ing fats and oils in the bin, not down the sink.

Yes, this is the nicest pic­ture we could find…

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