It was the third sewer of the night. The first two had posed the usual problems: possible death from methane or other toxic gases, stepping around the sanitary pads and tampons that people stupidly flush down toilets, listening for rats. But the third presented a new challenge. It was a lovely sewer. There are many lovely sewers beneath London, thanks to Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian super-engineer who built some of the 30,000 miles that run under greater London. This was a Bazalgette sewer, the flusher told me, as we climbed down a ladder and began to descend a spiral brick staircase that above ground would have been in Architectural Digest.
Then he stopped. “Fat,” he said. We had head-torches, so I pointed my light towards his. A greyish block of something was completely blocking the staircase. We couldn’t climb over or around it, and we were carrying nothing – jet hoses, for example – that could shift it. Instead: Retreat upstairs, and then a rant.
Flushers – the men who work in the sewers are technically “wastewater operatives” but their name comes from their old job of flushing the sewage out into the Thames with brooms – don’t mind shit. They of course say it’s their bread and butter. But they hate, loathe, and despise fat. It gets in their pores, even after they shower, so they go home clean and then after dinner they start to sweat the congealed remains of Londoners’ meals through their skin. They expect to deal with shit. They shouldn’t have to deal with blockages caused by the denseness or delinquency of people who don’t connect pouring stuff down their sink with overloaded sewers; or who don’t care. Up top, the flushers reminisced about a fatberg – although the word didn’t exist then – under Parliament Square that had kept them there for six weeks trying to shift it with pick-axes and brute strength. One got a house down-payment out of the overtime. Another legendary fatberg under Leicester Square took three months to shift.
Even the overtime doesn’t stop them hating fat. It clogs, blocks, weakens and overloads the sewer system, which is overloaded enough, when it was built for 3 million Londoners and now must serve 15 million. Even Bazalgette couldn’t foresee that much population growth. London is getting a £3 billion super-sewer (a questionably short-term solution), to cope with the volumes of liquids that sewers can’t contain even after only two millimetres of rain. Our habit of flushing several litres of drinking water down the toilet is one source of strain on the system (and one that is in need of evolution: even in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt thought that “civilized people ought to know how to dispose of sewage in some other way than putting it into the drinking water".)
Our mania for paving over lawns is another: seven million London homes have turned their gardens into hardstandings, amounting to an area of concrete equivalent to 100 Hyde Parks. Water can pass through lawn to be safely absorbed: all that concrete means it must be diverted to our already overloaded sewers. The result is blocked sewers and nowhere for sewage to go except into the nearest water course or into your basement. The Environment Agency says that 39 million tonnes of sewage is discharged into the tidal Thames each year. Raw sewage in your river more than once a week, legally. In an average year, 6,000 homeowners find sewage has backed up into their houses or gardens (or hardstandings).
Sewer Open Days are rare. Sewers are dangerous places in which flushers still die. But perhaps if we could see the damage we do them by our selfish throwaway habits, we might change. Because here are some other things that are thrown down drains, sinks, showers, toilets: liquid concrete, that hardens and blocks sewers. Hospital waste including aprons. A hand grenade (live). Half a Mini at Beckton Sewage Works. (Both those were found by my sewer escort, the delightful Rob Smith of Thames Water.) Those are the things you can see. Then there are the unused pharmaceuticals, anything from old aspirin to powerful anti-psychotics. They hit the sewer, they mix. They are a tiny part of a huge volume of wastewater, but still, we don’t yet know what effect they may be having on us and our water supply.
What can be done? Wastewater utilities frequently launch yet another “bag it and bin it” campaign. They urge us to put nappies in the bin, not the toilet. They strongly encourage us to wipe used cooking oil from pans with kitchen roll and bin it too, or pour it on our gardens. As for restaurants and fast-food places who tip tons of oil down their drains, they are routinely encouraged to use fat traps, but enforcement is minimal. It costs money to cart away fat (although now that fat is being turned into energy, it can make money). Chucking it down the sewer is free. So all these urgings, policies and laws collide with our stubborn disregard for the sewers that keep our cities going. That disregard is the size of a fatberg and just as distasteful.