London's sewers overflow about once a week

While most of our focus this week while in the U.K. has been on our series, Mind the Gap: Exploring Income Inequality in London, there was just one story we couldn’t resist: The sewers of London!

London’s sewer system is perhaps the most notorious sewer system in the world. In the 1800’s, the sewer’s overflow into the (then) main source of drinking water for Londoners, the Thames River, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths from cholera and other diseases. A more advanced system was built as a result that boasted the best of Victorian engineering and craftsmanship. It’s the same system that is still being used today, more than 150 years later.

Last week in the U.S., President Obama called for an increase in the amount of investment in infrastructure.

Here in London, similar pushes for infrastructure enhancements are being made. The two most controversial are proposals to create a high speed rail that would extend from London to Birmingham, and a campaign for a super sewer system that would prevent the existing overburdened sewer system from overflowing into the Thames River.

Right now the sewer system overflows once a week, on average.

Imagine our luck when we learned that it just happens to be Sewer Week in London. This helped us gain rare access for a tour. We were told yesterday during our tour that in some cases, the public has to wait for up to five years for a tour like the one we experienced.


Marketplace's Nicole Childers wrote her take of the tour: 

We set off early in the morning and we were whisked off by Thames Water to Abbey Lane, home of the historic Abbey Mills Pumping station that was built in the 1800’s and served as the central transfer point of several of London’s sewers. We started our day learning about the history of the system before getting a tour of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station. Within Abbey Mills exists several stations. One of the most decorated is the B station, which has garnered quite a few media appearances throughout the years. The Arkham Asylum in the movie Batman Begins was filmed there as was part of Coldplay’s “Lovers in Japan” music video.

Marketplace's Nicole Childers (Marketplace)

We then made our way over to Wick Lane Depot for a tour of an operational sewer. After changing into protective gear that included rubber boots and gloves, a bright white full body protective suit reminiscent of a hazmat suit, and a hard hat to top it all off, our tour guide, Danny Brackley, led us through standard safety procedures. Then, one by one we were hooked up to a protective cable before climbing down a ladder into a hole that left us more than 30-feet below ground in a pool of raw sewage that included everything from fecal matter to cooking fat irresponsibly poured down many a London kitchen sink.

For someone like me who is terrified of heights, the last step off the ladder and into raw sewage was not as comforting as I’d anticipated. Before descending into the tunnels we had been warned that the water level could be as high as 2-3 feet in some parts. Instead of feeling solid ground beneath my feet, I was met with shaky gravel and cloudy brown water flowed through and around my legs. What was in the milk chocolate-y water that now surrounded me, you may ask?  The raw sewage included everything from what you flush down your toilet to the drainage from your shower, washing machine, and sink.

As we made our way through the sewers, the smell wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. It was more of a musty moldy smell than the smell you generally associate with a sewer. Our guide explained that generally our experience with sewer smells is after a blockage when the raw sewage gets stuck and turns septic; emanating that recognizable but stomach turning odor. These sewers flow at a pretty steady rate, which prevents the waste from rotting before it reaches the water treatment plan.   

I thought I’d be most surprised to see fecal matter floating by, but the real surprise was the astounding number of spoons, yes, real spoons that made their way into the sewers. Our guide, Dan, explained his theory: In jail, prisoners often smuggle spoons into their cells from the canteen to transform them into sharp weapons, but they end up getting flushed down the toilet right before guards perform cell searches. Seeing cutlery cascading past me didn’t hold a candle to what we saw at the end of our time in the sewer.  As I made my way up the ladder at the end of the tour, someone still down in the sewers spotted a ring. The discovery led us all to ponder whether it was flushed down the toilet by an angry and disenchanted spouse seeking an incontrovertible end of matrimony, or whether it belonged to one half of a happy couple who removed the ring only to have it slip unwittingly into a kitchen or bathroom sink and down the drain. 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...