Fatbergs are by-products of the plastic crisis and have become a real problem, blocking sewers up and down the country. It’s estimated that they cost £80m a year to clear.
Parasitology experts from Aberystwyth University undertook a thorough examination of a supersize fatberg, discovered underneath the streets of London’s South Bank.
The analysis of the 750-metre long mass – weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses – offered unprecedented insights not only into what people chuck down the toilet, but also into what they consume.
The autopsy of the vast, congealed mass found it consisted of fat, human waste and discarded items, such as nappies, wet wipes and condoms.
Researchers also found that substances used for muscle-building and weight loss made up more than half the pharmaceuticals found in the capital’s sewers – a greater proportion than recreational drugs.
The evidence raises issues for the health and fitness industry when it comes to educating members about the negative effects of abusing illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
The researchers tasked with undertaking the challenging task and analysis were professor Jo Hamilton and Dr Justin Pachebat from Aberystwyth’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS).
“We were given bucketloads of the fatberg for the initial analysis,” Pachebat says. “The project was fascinating and we soon realised that there were several biological ‘layers’ for us to work on.
“As expected, we found Campylobacter, E Coli and Listeria – all species that are a common cause of food poisoning in humans.”
“But there were also a lot of small molecules, such as antibiotics, drugs and steroids – in fact, we found a higher concentration of those than you would expect in a sample of normal waste.”
Among the substances found were ostarine, which is used in performance-enhancing sports supplements and hordenine, which has the ability to promote weight loss by boosting the metabolic rate.
Ostarine, which is used mainly for muscle gain, was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list in 2008. It's classed as a selective androgen receptor modulator (SARM) and is not licensed for medical use in the UK.
For Pachebat, the high concentration of steroids and hormones designed to aid muscle-building and weight loss suggests that there could be an issue in the way they're used.
“I’m assuming most of the steroids and growth hormones have been consumed and then excreted in urine,” he says.
“The fact there was such a relatively large amount of them could mean they've just gone through the body without being changed or metabolised in any way.
“That suggests people may be taking them in such high doses, that the majority of the drugs just pass straight through the body.”
“In other words, people are either consuming far too much of these supplements, or they don’t work and pass through the body untouched.”
As well as raising questions over the ethics, legaility and health costs of drug use, having a high concentration of steroids in the fatberg could indicate a more serious problem.
“If we have drugs and steroids in the fatberg, we know we must have them floating freely around in the sewage water,” Pachebat says. “A lot of water cleaning systems filter out bacteria, pathogens and debris – but they won’t necessarily always take out the drugs.
“This means there might be small amounts of these drugs and steroids going back into the water system, or being released out into the environment.
“Things like marine molluscs, animals and insects living in the rivers or close to waste treatment plants might get affected by building up concentrations of some of these drugs in their tissue.”
In terms of environmental hazards, there is also the possibility that these substances will ultimately find their way back into our drinking water.
Pachebat and his team are currently working on a further analysis of the fatberg, with results expected in early summer this year.