There’s a common misconception that once something has disappeared down your plughole it’s gone forever. I can vouch from first-hand experience that this is not the case, having gone into the Victorian sewers under London on a fair few occasions.
Just because you can put things down your sink or loo doesn’t necessarily mean you should. In some cases it can literally come back to haunt you or a neighbour – in the form of sewage backing up in your drain and flooding your home or garden.
Thames Water’s team of hardy sewer flushers – men who roam London’s sewers clearing blockages – are currently clearing the equivalent of nine double-decker bus loads of putrid cooking fat from under Leicester Square.
This is the result of years of “sewer abuse”, which is when anything other than water, poo and loo roll is put down drains. In Leicester Square’s case, an estimated 1,000 tonnes of fat is being cleared in the largest-ever sewer clean-up of its kind.
Although the flushers are used to getting their hands dirty, they claim this is the worst blockage they have come across. The sewers under Leicester Square are blocked solid with fat. To add to the misery, the fat eats oxgen and gives off methane producing heat – needless to say, the smell is horrendous. On top of this the fat provides perfect conditions for rats. It’s a great food source and they like to burrow into it as it’s warm. Funnily enough, it is rare to see a rat in a clean sewer. You could say fat free pretty much means rat free!
Our flushers have been wearing full breathing apparatus and using shovels to dig out the fat. Powerful jets are being used to break down the fat-bergs inside the sewer.
Putting cooking fat down drains is a big ‘no no’. As soon as it is poured away it cools down quickly and sets hard like lard. Other household products such as wet wipes, sanitary products and cotton buds make things worse still, sticking to the fat and forming solid blockages.
We spend £12m a year clearing around 55,000 sewer blockages across London and the Thames Valley. There are also 7,000 homes and gardens in our region which get flooded with sewage each year as a result of blockages – which is just horrible. Half of these could be avoided if people stopped abusing the sewers.
We launched our ‘Bin it – don’t block it!’ campaign in August 2010 to combat sewer abuse by educating people on what should and shouldn’t be put down the drain.
The drains connected to your home are only designed to take away wastewater, toilet tissue and human waste. A recent survey we did found 41 per cent of customers put the wrong things down the drain. Research shows there is confusion about what should and shouldn’t be flushed away and this is sometimes made worse by misleading ‘flushable’ labelling. Even if these products are labelled as flushable, they should not be flushed.
The term ‘flushable’ means the product will go down the toilet without clogging. However, this does not mean that it will break down once it reaches the sewer and it could end up blocking your internal plumbing or the main sewer, causing sewage to back-up. The only product that should be flushed is toilet paper.
So the next time you’re tempted to wash your meat fat or wet wipes down the drain, please spare a thought for our flushers – because they’ll be the ones cleaning the resultant blockage.