As It Happens

U.K. scientists dissected a fatberg and found, among the gunk, some false teeth

Scientists have discovered that a 63-metre-long fatberg — a mass of congealed fat, wet wipes and hygiene products — from the depths of southwest England’s sewers isn't toxic. But it tells an interesting story about the people who created it.

The massive sewage blocks smell 'horrible,' but they also shed light on social history, U.K. professor says

An upper set of false teeth was found in a fatberg by scientists from the University of Exeter. (John Love)
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Transcript

It's slimy and yellow in colour and, once exposed to oxygen, smells like a decomposing body. 

It's undergone an autopsy, but this is no regular post-mortem. 

This exam involved scientists in protective gear picking apart pieces of a 63-metre long fatberg — a hunk of congealed cooking fat, wet wipes and discarded hygiene products — that utility workers discovered in the Victorian-era sewers of southwest England earlier this year.

Inside the fatberg, the researchers discovered, among other things, some false teeth.

Despite such surprises, the greasy mess in the coastal town of Sidmouth presents no health and environmental hazards. But it does tell an interesting story about the people who created it.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with John Love, a synthetic biology professor at the University of Exeter who led the team that dissected the fatberg. Here is part of their conversation.

How does one approach a lump of fatberg?

Well, you have to be really, really careful because you don't know what's in there.

Does it smell?

Oh, yes. It's horrible. It smells really, very organic, shall we say. There's just a real stench of sewer that comes with it. Some of the fatberg is almost buttery in appearance. It's yellowish. And you can see that it's very greasy to the touch. It feels slimy. But there is grit in there and there are fibres in there, and you can really feel them as well. I suppose it's like wool dipped in candle wax.

Professor John Love disposes of the remains of a melted chunk of fatberg after dissection. (John Love)

How do you keep from retching when you look at this?

Well, I suppose it's just practice really, isn't it? You get used to a lot. And I suppose, as a biologist, I've dissected quite a few smelly things in my life. So this is just another one. It is not pleasant, but you get by.

I don't think I could get used to it. But you must wear something, some protective clothing of some kind.

Yes, we do. When we were doing the fatberg dissection, we were wearing stab-proof gloves, and over those stab-proof gloves we had just our normal neoprene gloves. We had our lab coats on with closed cuffs, all done up to our neck. We had our safety goggles. We didn't need a mask because the work that we were doing was in a special hood that had a pane of glass in front of it. So we were working underneath in this hood. And we had our safety shoes on as well.

You have all these precautionary things on you because [of] the possibility [that] there's something sharp, dangerous or toxic. So did you find anything like that in your fatberg?

Well, actually — and this is sort of the good news — we didn't, which was also, for us, the disappointing news. In terms of macroscopic things in the fatberg, we've mostly found wet wipes. We found the residues of nappies and incontinence pads. We found ... female sanitary products. We even found some false teeth.

Tim Henderson, a 'flusher' or trunk sewer technician holds a fatberg as he works in the intersection of the Regent and Victoria streets sewer in London on Dec. 11, 2014. Every day beneath the streets of London, sewer cleaners are fighting a grim war against giant fatbergs that are clogging the system. (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

What? You found false teeth?

[Laughs] We did. We found a set of false teeth. Yeah. So a lot of things go down the toilet that we're not really aware of. 

Oh, yeah. Usually thrown there by children. But losing a set of false teeth — that must have been a distressing day for somebody.

To be honest, that was the thing that nearly sent one of my colleagues over the edge. When he saw the false teeth in there, he felt it was like something out of a horror movie.

Here's a sampling of what experts at the University of Exeter found when they dissected the massive fatberg found beneath the streets of Sidmouth. (Submitted by John Love)

This, of course, is different from what they've found in other fatbergs, isn't it? Can you describe how this differs?

Well, the fatberg in London, for instance, contained a lot more sharps and things like needles and things from drug abuse. Actually, Sidmouth, where this fatberg is, is a very genteel, coastal town. It's a holiday resort and also inhabited mainly by retired people. We did not find … any drug paraphernalia. Instead, we found things that are more associated with maybe older people.

Like false teeth.

Yes, like the false teeth.

We know in … London's East End, this mammoth fatberg they found … they found cocaine, they found syringes, condoms. I guess reflecting a different lifestyle.

That's right. And I think that's what makes these fatbergs actually quite interesting because they do clarify a little bit maybe … [about] the social history of what's going on in a specific area. 

They seem to accumulate very, very quickly as well.

Since South West Water has cleaned the sewer in which this was found … they've actually found that there's a new deposit beginning, and it's already about seven centimetres deep.

Samples taken from a fatberg in southwest England showed no detectable levels of toxic chemicals, according to scientists at the University of Exeter who studied the mass. The fatberg measured about 63 metres in length when it was found underneath the town of Sidmouth earlier this year. (University of Exeter/The Associated Press)

There was a fellow we interviewed back in January talking about the efforts to try and get people not to flush all these things down the toilet. And he, I guess the public service announcement was the three Ps: pee, poo and paper. Nothing else should go down there.

That's exactly right. When we were doing the dissection, we found, obviously, the plastics and the cotton, wool, and everything, the wet wipes. These were all really not decomposed at all.

We actually also looked at … the microscopic fibres in the fatberg, and we found that most of them — 99 per cent of them indeed — were cellulose fibres that came from toilet paper. So toilet paper is really well-designed to disaggregate in the sewer system and to actually not be such a problem. 

Wet wipes do contain a large proportion of plastic, and they're not just paper. And I don't think people realize that.

In London's East End, they actually have put a piece of that fatberg on display at the museum for people to see what they're doing to the sewers. Any plans to do that in Sidmouth?

Not in Sidmouth. The minute you take it [the fatberg] out of the sewer, it starts to decompose almost like a — well, essentially, it's like a dead organic body, if you like. And it will decompose in oxygen, so that's not nice. It doesn't really subsist outside for very long, unless you preserve it.

Oh, gosh. I don't think I want to hear anything more about this, but I have to ask one last question. Any message out to see if anyone is looking for a set of false teeth?

[Laughs] If they do need a pair of false teeth — an upper jaw — we can provide one. But I can't say it looked particularly pleasant, and I wouldn't want to put it in my mouth.


Written by Kristen Fenn with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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