By: Shirley Papuga
Summary: A “fatberg” is a giant ooey-gooey congealed sewer system blob comprised of flushed non-biodegradable solids – such as wet wipes - and greases. Fatbergs can become so big and strong that special equipment must be used to remove them. Since around 2010, more and more fatbergs have been identified, threatening the effectiveness of water infrastructure around the globe. While they can occur anywhere, for the most part fatbergs have been found in highly populated urban areas such as London and Denver – with recent sightings in Macomb Country near Detroit. And these fatbergs can be huge – reaching the size of double-decker buses.
Where are these blobs coming from? Researchers have found that many items that are deemed flushable – such as flushable wipes – which while technically they may be able to go down the drains – they do not biodegrade as suggested. These “flushable” products are in a large part the instigators of these gelatinous sewer system blockages. Just like rolling a snowball, when wipes start to tumble through the sewer system they accumulate and fats, oils and greases they come together and gradually forming the hard fatberg mass – and can become large enough to eventually clog sewers potentially forcing raw sewage out of the system. They further collect sanitary products, condoms, syringes and other flushed items along the way. Cleaning up the problem is expensive and time consuming and compromises our already aging water infrastructure. This fatberg phenomenon presents a good opportunity to really rethink what we are flushing down our drains: we should only be putting only human waste and toilet paper down our toilets.
Why we should care? Fatbergs give us the opportunity to [re]consider what we flush down our drains and how it impacts our water infrastructure and the drinking water it is meant to supply us.
Example News Article:
A gigantic 140-ton fatberg was found outside of a small coastal town over a hundred miles from London. It took eight weeks to dismantle the fatberg and this operation cost over $100,000. Despite those efforts, already a new fatberg is starting to form.
A team of 10 researchers began to look closely at what was found within the fatberg. After weeks of dissecting the fatberg, the team found no dangerous bacteria or chemicals in the sections they analyzed- showing it was composed mainly of domestic waste bound together by home-cooking fats. Much of the domestic waste were characteristic of materials you might expect coming from a coastal retirement community such as incontinence pads – suggesting that local education about flushing habits could be extremely effective in preventing future fatbergs.
Science in Action.
Dr. Tracie Baker is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at Wayne State University whose research is relevant to fatbergs.
As an environmental toxicologist, Dr. Baker’s WATER Lab focuses on multidisciplinary, translational research that seeks to bridge and improve human, animal, and environmental health. Much of her work is in developing novel methods and approaches in zebrafish husbandry, genomics, and behavior and promoting standardization of the zebrafish model for use in this multidisciplinary work. Her research links developmentally-based and transgenerational, environmentally-induced disease with endocrine disrupting compounds, aquatic toxicants, and contaminants of emerging concern. Because her research bridges public health and environmental toxins – it makes sense that looking into fatbergs as a public health concern would fall into her research portfolio. Currently she and her research group are looking into a Macomb County fatberg: https://www.candgnews.com/news/researchers-progressing-in-fatberg-study-115186.