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This Is What Happens When You Flush Things That Shouldn't Be Flushed

Condoms, tampons, and wet wipes belong in the trash can, people.

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Sep 13 2017, 5:07pm

Courtesy Thames Water

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Pennywise isn't the only terrifying thing hanging out in the sewers these days. Presenting more nightmare fuel you didn't need: a solid mass of fat, oil, diapers, wet wipes, condoms, and tampons in London that's now longer than two football fields (or "football pitches" as the press release charmingly puts it) and weighs 130 tons. The revolting blockage is known as a "fatberg" and it's clogging a section of Victorian-era sewer pipe a little less than 12 feet below the streets of Whitechapel, the London neighborhood famously known as the former hunting grounds of Jack the Ripper. (Though I'm sure there are nice people there, too.)

Crews currently have the unenviable job of breaking up the fatberg and Matt Rimmer, head of waste networks at Thames Water, the utility that manages the sewers, sounds especially pissed. "This fatberg is up there with the biggest we've ever seen. It's a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it's set hard. It's basically like trying to break up concrete," he said in a release. "It's frustrating as these situations are totally avoidable and caused by fat, oil and grease being washed down sinks and wipes flushed down the loo." They think it will take three weeks to dispose of it.

Thames Water issued the press release to remind people that when they flush something, it doesn't just, you know, *disappear*. There's a massive infrastructure dedicated to the miracle that is indoor plumbing—and someone has to maintain it. Thames Water serves 15 million customers and says it spends about £1 million (about $1.3 million) every month clearing sewer blockages.

Fatbergs are all caused by things that shouldn't end up in the sewers, anyway: congealed fat (often poured down the drain by restaurants, but also by regular) as well as flushed health items like diapers, condoms, tampons, pads, and Q-tips. These things belong in what's called a trash can.

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Unfortunately, the problem is not unique to London. New York City spent an estimated $4.65 million in 2013 to clear similar blockages, and it's recently dealt with the rising problem of people flushing the adult wet wipes they use on their adult asses. That may be because some, like Dude Wipes, are branded as "flushable." To which New York and other cities say: please don't do that. As Tim Haapala, operations manager for the Charleston, West Virginia, sanitary board told the New York TImes in 2015: "I agree that they're flushable. A golf ball is flushable, but it's not a good idea."

London sewers, though, seem to have particular difficulties with clogging, as in 2015, when a 100-ton fatberg broke a section of pipe that was about 70 years old. The damage required replacing 100 feet of pipe and cost an estimated $600,000.

Avoiding such problems is fairly simple, but it requires everyone to play their part. Think of it as the Loser's Club banding together to defeat Pennywise, except none of us have to actually venture into the sewers. We just have to stop treating them like garbage dumps, where whatever we put down the toilet magically vanishes. As Rimmer put it, "The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

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