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Study Focuses On Alleviating Sewer Blockages Caused By "Fatbergs"
December 2, 2019

Worldwide, the occurrence of large-scale sewer blockages caused by the massive buildup of discarded fats, oils and greases (FOGs) is on the rise. The problem is becoming even more severe as solid waste products such as paper towels, sanitary products and wipes are flushed down toilets. The combination of FOGs with the waste paper products can be dangerous and environmentally caustic. Often, these blockages are caused by people improperly disposing of these items in homes, restaurants, and in various industries and businesses. Even items that claim they are biodegradable or flushable do not break down in sewers and are a part of the problem.

A fatberg sample being used in a research study at Wayne State University. Credit: Tracie Baker, DVM, Ph.D., Wayne State University.

These buildups have been termed “fatbergs,” and their environmental impact is severe. Their accumulations have a high potential to pose a significant health risk and can create sewer blockages that cause great damage.

Now, according to information provided by Wayne State University (WSU), a team of researchers led by Carol Miller, Ph.D., professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Tracie Baker, DVM, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is collaborating to better understand the physical, chemical and biological character of these fatbergs through real-time video, in-line sensor data and advanced physio-chemical analysis of the blockages.

“Our study will help identify contaminants of interest in fatbergs by extracting and evaluating the concentrations of emerging contaminants including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and plastics,” said Dr. Baker. “These results can be helpful in identifying potential risks associated with blockages and inform targeted prevention and mitigation efforts.”

With funding provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the WSU research team is evaluating the massive fatberg that occurred in a major wastewater interceptor pipe in Macomb County, Michigan — one of the largest blockages in the county. When the blockage occurred, millions of gallons of untreated sewage were nearly discharged into the nearby Clinton River in order to avoid severe basement flooding throughout the area. Raw sewage releases — whether to basements or rivers — threaten environmental and human health in the region.

“Our work in the laboratory will lead to new information about the chemistry and hydraulic characteristics of fatbergs, and the environmental considerations associated with their growth,” said Dr. Miller. “And our important work of educating the public can begin to help stop these human-sourced blockages that have had — and will continue to have — a severe impact on our environment.”

Miller and Baker are working with the Michigan Science Center to design an educational centerpiece about the occurrences of fatberg blockages and actions the public can adopt to mitigate the occurrence.

The study, “Rapid: Response to Massive Sewer Blockage for Immediate Flood Mitigation and Future Remedies,” seeks to identify potential risks associated with “fatberg” blockages and inform targeted prevention and mitigation efforts.

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