Are Fatbergs An Indicator Of The UK’s Declining Health?

Maddy White
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A supersized fatberg has recently been extracted and forensically analysed in London. Do its contents tell of a population whose health is in decline?

An enormous fatberg has been unearthed from the depths of London’s sewer system for analysis. It is comprised mainly of wet wipes, condoms, cooking fat, and excrement. But surprisingly, what was also found, were high quantities of the performance-enhancing drugs, Ostarine and Hordenine.

Fatbergs are large masses of waste which block sewage systems in cities and the South Bank fatberg could be London’s biggest one yet. Larger, even, than the 130-tonne fatberg discovered last year in Whitechapel, east London. Thames Water waste networks manager Alex Saunders says: “We and other water companies are facing a constant battle to keep the nation’s sewers free from fatbergs and other blockages.” And they aren’t a cheap problem either, the fight to remove them is costing the UK an estimated £80m a year, this is funded by utility customers via their water bills.

Unsurprisingly, fat makes up the vast majority of fatbergs, but it was these chemicals, Ostarine and Hordenine both used for increased athletic ability, that could reflect a decline in the nation’s health.

London Sewer. Photo by Matt Brown

That sinking feeling

Chemicals like these can make their way into the sewers when they aren’t completely broken down by the human body. Dr John Wilkinson from the University of York says: “You wake up in the morning, have your cup of coffee. Not all of the caffeine in that coffee you drink is going to be broken down by your body. In the case of caffeine, somewhere around 60 percent of that caffeine is broken down into metabolites, the remaining 40 percent is excreted as caffeine.”

Ostarine is an anabolic agent and has similar effects on the body to anabolic steroids. And according to the NHS, anabolic steroids can cause heart attacks, hallucinations and kidney tumours. But the NHS also say that, “most people who use anabolic steroids are aware of the dangers of taking them.”

Ostarine is a prohibited substance, but it is still being accessed. “Despite some supplements not being licensed for medical use in the UK, or featuring on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list, they can be purchased easily, for example on the internet.” Sarah Coe, a Nutrition Scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation told The Versed.

Coe added though that some supplements can be beneficial to athletes but not the general public. “Sports supplements have become increasingly popular among people who are looking to enhance their performance during exercise training, but only very few have good evidence of benefit in athletes.”

She continued:  “It is important to remember that for most recreational gym goers enough protein can easily be obtained from the diet.”

A map of London sewers. Photo by Matt Brown

An indicator of declining health?

Hordenine is a naturally occuring chemical found in malted barley – a key ingredient in beer – and bitter orange. It is actually thought to activate dopamine receptors in the brain and increase energy levels. “Users may choose to take them before, during and after training to enhance performance and improve recovery,” says Azmina Govindji from the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

In the fatberg, there was 4,072 nanograms per litre of Ostarine found, compared to 541 ng/l of Cocaine and 28 ng/l of Heroin/Morphine. Morphine misuse in 2016 accounted for 1,209 deaths in the UK and opiates also account for the highest amount of deaths recorded due to drug misuse. If the trace in this fatberg is lower, this could indicate a decrease in use of these drugs.

The levels of Ostarine in the fatberg were much higher, but this substance, whilst detrimental to health, causes substantially fewer deaths per year, with one study estimating anabolic steroids to have taken 19 lives over the course of 14 years. The UK’s consumption drug consumption habits could be changing.

Whether the fatberg is an indicator of declining health remains to be answered. And whilst both Ostarine and Hordenine were found in large quantities and do have effects on the body – prohibited substance Ostarine is a cause for concern – other drugs such as Morphine and Cocaine – found in much smaller amounts –  take many times more lives a year.

This particular fatberg would suggest that people’s consumption habits are changing and performance-enhancing drugs are seemingly on the rise; If we are to have a broader picture of what fatbergs really say about our health, more will have to be pulled from the depths of sewers across the country and forensically analysed.


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