Fatbergs are a modern phenomenon.
They form when sewage pipes trap nonbiodegradable debris and human waste that congeals and sticks together with the help of grease and other fats. Everything you flush down the toilet or wash down the sink — including tampon applicators, cotton balls and wet wipes — can contribute to their formation.
The sludgy masses have made headlines in England, where Victorian-era sewer pipes are failing to cope with the mass of modern people’s bathroom and kitchen habits. But as Jessica Leigh Hester writes for Atlas Obscura, they’re not exclusively an English phenomenon.
Hester reports on the Macomb County blob’s journey from sewer hazard to museum artifact (part of the fatberg is now on display at the Michigan Science Center at Wayne State University). When scientists at the school analyzed a portion of the dislodged waste clump, they found a slurry of sewage, trash, oils and fats — and some unexpected bacteria.
“Pieces of the fatberg were worth keeping around for analysis because ‘so few fatbergs have been characterized,’ ” Hester writes, quoting environmental toxicologist Tracie Baker, who got up close and personal with the blob. “The team wanted to know exactly what the mess was made of and how it might affect the ecosystem both inside and outside of the sewer.”
The story of how scientists got to know the fatberg and how it made its way to a museum makes for a revoltingly fascinating read. To read Hester’s account, hold your nose and go to bit.ly/MichiganFatberg.