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Monster fatberg vies for role of grossest museum exhibit

Last September, the Whitechapel fatberg was a 130 tonne, 250 metre long monster, a toxic congealed mass of fat, oil, wet wipes, nappies and condoms smelling like “rotting meat mixed with the odour of a smelly toilet”.

The toughest parts had to be hacked out of the sewer under London’s east end with jet hoses and pick axes.

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Fatberg preserved in London museum

When the monster Whitechapel fatberg was discovered in a London sewer last year it took months of gut-wrenching work to clear and now one of the city's foremost museums has put remnants of the toxic mass on display.

“The beast is finally defeated,” a triumphant Thames Water manager said at the nine-week job’s end.

But two parts of this record-setting blob remain.

Shoebox-sized fragments of the once-mighty fatberg lie under glass at London Museum, where they are quietly decaying and emitting the odd fly.

They have been blow-dried into grey, pumice-like objects. If it wasn’t for the odd human hair, the end of a chocolate bar wrapper, and all the fuss, you’d think them rocks.

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The London Museum’s Fatberg! Exhibition opens on Friday amid much fanfare (a frankly fraudulent promotional photo pictures the Blob-like fatberg towering over the city centre).

But its star turn ends in six months – by which stage the curators fear their fatberg will have crumbled away into dust.

“We can tell a lot about a society by studying its waste,” curator Vyki Sparkes said. “Fatbergs are disgusting, fascinating things which mark a particular moment in London’s history, created by people and businesses who discard rubbish and fat which London’s Victorian sewer system was never designed to cope with.

“The size and foulness of fatbergs make them impossible to ignore and remind us of our failings.”

The museum’s two samples of fatberg are inside a sealed unit.

Sharon Robinson-Calver, head of conservation at the museum, said she was surprised when her bosses asked her how to display a mass of oil containing toxic bacteria and inflammable and toxic gases.

“We knew that it was going to be difficult,” she said. “Nobody ever tries to preserve them because they are usually destroyed. We really don’t know how this is going to behave while it’s on display. It’s already hatching drain flies and fruit flies. It’s still a live sample, full of live bacteria.”

They are used to dealing with hazardous materials containing asbestos or from burial grounds, but they’ve never had material from a sewer before.

Andy Holbrook, collection care manager and fatberg boffin, hopes that people who see the fatberg will go away and think twice the next time they’re about to tip cooking oil or cosmetics down the plughole.

They sent a sample to Cranfield University for analysis, and learned the fatberg was about two-thirds fat, with the rest ash/grit and ‘other’.

More than half of the fat was palmitic - found in palm oil and olive oil, butter, cheese and meat - as well as laundry detergent and cosmetics. Much of the rest was oleic acid, found in olive and almond oil as well as soap.

They also found a lot of fecal bacteria.

“We’ve learned to love the fatberg as we’ve become more and more fascinated by it,” he said.

He’s worried that by the end of the exhibition there may be little left of their new exhibit.

But Thames Water’s Becky Trotman says another fatberg is always growing somewhere else in their sewer network.