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Fascinatingly Filthy: How Bad Science Saved Lives in Victorian London

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Wellcome Trust, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

If you’re a fan of science or history, you know that many of the most important discoveries in medicine were made due to wild speculation, lazy lab techs, or plain old accidents. And plenty of theories of healing were so wrong as to have actually been responsible for deaths, not cures. 

But every once in a while, humans of the past got lucky: Even though their science was completely wrong, the theory driving it saved lives anyway. Such is the case with “miasma,” a concept popular throughout the mid-1800s with laypeople, doctors, and public-health advocates.  

“The prevailing view was that ‘miasma’—foul smell, particularly the stench of rotting matter—was the cause of disease. It was an appealing idea—not least because the slums, where epidemics raged, stank,” says Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London, which recently came out in paperback. 

Mental_floss spoke to Jackson about how attempts to clean up the unbelievably filthy city in the 19th century—when the population increased tremendously—led to major improvements in both public and personal health that had a lasting legacy around the world. And it all happened despite the fact they didn’t have the science right. 

THE STENCH OF DISEASE

The true cause of disease—germs, or pathogens—wasn’t verified until Louis Pasteur conducted his experiments of the 1860s (though some scientists had proposed the idea much earlier), and it was another decade before the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, leprosy, diphtheria, and other illnesses were identified and understood.

The Victorians made the classic error that correlation equals causation. Slums smell, due to poor sanitation, piles of garbage stacking up, and the lack of bathing and clothes-washing facilities; people in slums die of epidemics at a faster rate; ergo, stench causes disease.

And boy, did London stink. 

Let’s start with the dead bodies, which were buried in churchyards, most of them in the middle of neighborhoods. “Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood,” Jackson writes in Dirty Old London.  

As the bodies, dead from old age or disease, rotted, pathogens leaked into the water table, sometimes making their way to nearby wells. But since germ theory wasn’t understood, it was the stench of the near-surface bodies that got the attention.

“London’s small churchyards were so ridiculously full, that decaying corpses were near to the top soil; ‘graveyard gases’ were a familiar aroma. In fact, gases from corpses are relatively harmless,” Jackson says. Large, open, park-like cemeteries were soon built on the outskirts of the city, relieving “miasma” and live bacteria from close proximity to drinking water. 

Sewage was another disease vector that seems obvious to the modern person, but to the people of the past, it was the gag-worthy smells wafting from privies that caused disease. In poor areas, up to 15 families—whole tenements—might be sharing one overflowing shack. Slumlords liked to cut corners by refusing to have the “night-soil men” come by for a pick-up; these workers would shovel the waste into buckets and haul it out to farms to be used as fertilizer, and they (understandably!) didn’t work for free. 

But sewage wasn't just a problem for those actually using the privies; the liquid that leaked into the water table from the privies also spread disease. Even in middle-class homes, solid waste accumulated in basement cesspools that slowly leaked liquid wastes into wells just feet away. 

“The building of a unified network of sewers in the 1850s–'70s undoubtedly saved London from further epidemics of cholera and typhoid. It was done on grounds of ‘miasma’ but, regardless, the consequences were very positive,” Jackson says. 

CLEANING UP THE CITY

Public toilets were also finally built in the latter part of the 1800s, which cut down on street-stink—and also allowed women to have more freedom. Because only the poorest women and prostitutes peed in public (usually crouching over sewer grates to do so), lack of public facilities meant working-class women were often in a bind. These women “didn’t go out, or didn’t go’” according to Jackson’s research. “Navigating the city, therefore, required some level of planning, depending on your social class and whether you considered yourself ‘respectable’” Jackson says. (Like today, the bathrooms of shops or restaurants were generally only available to those making a purchase.)

Providing a place to pee also had the positive effect of cutting down on public urination by men. In some places the odor of urine, both fresh and old, was so intense that complaints to local councils were constant from the people who lived nearby. In some cases, the urine even degraded structures over time. Smart property owners installed “urine deflectors” on the sides of their buildings—if you were to aim your stream there, it would get bounced back onto your shoes. 

Public bathhouses—which often included spaces to wash and even dry laundry—also proved to be a boon to public health. It wasn't just about keeping bodies cleaner; for the poorest people in the city of London, water was only available from a public pump, and washing clothes and linens was often difficult-to-impossible. A place that allowed for washing of both body and textiles meant that diseases spread by fleas (such as typhus) were reduced. Bonus: Everyone smelled a bit better too.

Victorians went after that which stank—and public health improved. As Ruth Goodman writes in her book, How to Be a Victorian, “Housework was valuable in preserving health whichever theory you ascribed to. So too was community cleanliness: germs could be fought effectively as miasmas by good town management of waste, by regular street cleaning, by prosecuting those who dumped waste in public areas. Personal hygiene also had value with both germ and miasma theories of disease.” 

The Victorian era is now known as a great era of sanitation in Great Britain, with lasting changes and public infrastructure that still exists today. In a sense, it matters little that it was all based on something that didn’t exist.

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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