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Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

How a London Museum Is Preserving a Chunk of the 143-Ton Whitechapel Fatberg

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

When UK officials learned of the 143-ton Whitechapel fatberg mucking up London’s sewer system, their first concern was getting rid of it. Now, the curators at the Museum of London are figuring out how to best preserve a chunk of the monstrous trash mass so as many visitors as possible can see it.

As WIRED UK reports, the museum's exhibition, titled "Fatberg!", launches on Friday, February 9. It features a congealed mound of fat, hair, diapers, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, and condoms that was salvaged from the Whitechapel fatberg shortly after it was discovered beneath the streets of London in September 2017. According to the exhibition’s curator, Vyki Sparkes, no one has ever tried preserving a fatberg before.

The garbage globs, which form from grease and oil poured down sink drains, attract debris ranging in size from candy wrappers to planks of wood. Just a small piece of one can provide a fascinating glimpse at the waste that ends up in city sewers, but displaying a fatberg for the public to view poses logistical challenges.

In this case, the fatberg piece was set out to dry for seven weeks before it was transported to the Museum of London. The resulting item has the consistency of "parmesan crossed with moon rock," according to CBC News, and is roughly the size of a shoebox. Outside of the moist environment of London’s underbelly, the solid chunk may continue to dry out and crumble into pieces. Mold growth and sewer fly infestations are also potential issues as long as it's left out in the open.

The museum curators initially considered pickling the fatberg in formaldehyde to solve the aging problem. This idea was ultimately nixed as the liquid would have likely dissolved the whole lump into loose sludge. Freezing was another possibility, but the museum was unable to get a hold of the specialist freezers necessary for that to happen in time.

In the end, the curators decided to display it as-is within three layers of boxes. The clear cases are meant to spare guests from the noxious odor that Sparkes described to CBC News as a weeks-old diaper smell that’s simmered into something more like a “damp Victorian basement.” The exhibition closes July 1, at which point the museum must decide if the fatberg, if it remains intact, should become a permanent part of their collection. And if the mass doesn’t end up surviving the five-month show, obtaining another one to sample shouldn’t be too difficult.

[h/t WIRED UK]

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Billions of Cockroaches Are Bred in China to Create a ‘Healing Potion’
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Insectophobes would probably agree that any place that breeds billions of cockroaches a year is akin to hell on Earth.

That place actually exists—in the Sichuan Province city of Xichang—but China's government says it's all for a good cause. The indoor farm is tasked with breeding 6 billion creepy-crawlies a year to meet the country's demand for a special "healing potion" whose main ingredient is ground-up roaches.

While there are other cockroach breeding facilities in China that serve the same purpose, the one in Xichang is the world's largest, with a building "the size of two sports fields," according to the South China Morning Post.

The facility is reportedly dark, humid, and fully sealed, with cockroaches given the freedom to roam and reproduce as they please. If, for any odd reason, someone should want to visit the facility, they'd have to swap out their day clothes for a sanitized suit to avoid bringing pollutants or pathogens into the environment, according to Guangming Daily, a government newspaper.

The newspaper article contains a strangely poetic description of the cockroach farm:

"There were very few human beings in the facility. Hold your breath and (you) only hear a rustling sound. Whenever flashlights swept, the cockroaches fled. Wherever the beam landed, there was a sound like wind blowing through leaves. It was just like standing in the depths of a bamboo forest in late autumn."

Less poetic, though, is the description of how the "miracle" potion is made. Once the bugs reach maturity, they are fed into machines and ground up into a cockroach paste. The potion claims to work wonders for stomach pain and gastric ailments, and according to its packaging, it has a "slightly sweet" taste and a "slightly fishy smell."

The provincial government claims that the potion has healed more than 40 million patients, and that the Xichang farm is selling its product to more than 4000 hospitals throughout China. While this may seem slightly off-putting, cockroaches have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.

Some studies seem to support the potential nutritional benefit of cockroaches. The BBC reported on the discovery that cockroaches produce their own antibiotics, prompting scientists to question whether they could be used in drugs to help eliminate bacterial infections such as E. coli and MRSA.

In 2016, scientists in Bangalore, India, discovered that the guts of one particular species of cockroach contain milk protein crystals that appear to be nutritious, TIME reports. They said the milk crystal could potentially be used as a protein supplement for human consumption, as it packs more than three times the energy of dairy milk.

"I could see them in protein drinks," Subramanian Ramaswamy, a biochemist who led the study, told The Washington Post.

However, as research has been limited, it's unlikely that Americans will start to see cockroach smoothies at their local juice bar anytime soon.

[h/t South China Morning Post]

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Why a Train Full of New York City Poop Was Stranded in Alabama for Two Months
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

Update: Parrish residents can officially breathe easy. The last of the sludge has now been removed from the town, and Big Sky has ended its operation there, according to a Facebook post from Mayor Heather Hall. The containers that remain have been emptied of their smelly cargo and will be removed sometime before Friday, April 20.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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