Dirt Warriors: Homes

5 August 2011

 Wash your hands? by billaday on Flickr
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Wash your hands? by billaday on Flickr

During the Dirt exhibition, we’ve been running a series of events exploring the impact of filth and muck in everyday life. In June, we explored the role of the Environmental Health Officer. Alex Johnson went to find out what happens when a dirty home becomes a hazard.

Rosie Cox, author of The Servant Problem, introduced Monica Mulowoza, an Environmental Health Officer working for Camden Council, who began by explaining the role of an EHO. She outlined the five areas she covers – safety, inequality, noise, disrepair and contamination, although her time is usually taken up by dealing with noise, safety and contamination issues.

Her job also requires less salubrious encounters, not least tackling drainage problems and rodent infestations. In a nutshell: “it involves lots of dirt”. (Of course, EHOs don’t remove the waste themselves – that’s left to the specialist but rather scary sounding clean-up groups such as ‘Agent Orange’ and the ‘Blitz Squad’.)

The ‘dirty’ cases covered by Monica‘s team usually involve mess, and lots of it – from urine and other bad smells to dog and rodent excrement. However, only if there is a risk to health or the environmental do the council act.

Monica added that there is no definition of what makes something ‘filthy’, which can make her job difficult. But when it’s clear to see, there’s no need for definitions.

We were then shown a range of photos, which evoked gasps and remarks of horror from us all: cooking appliances painted with dirt and ancient food, toilets heaped in human waste, and cupboards disintegrating under piles of rotting food, to share just a few.

When a council receives a referral relating to filth or dirt, an informal visit to the property or premises is undertaken. Following this assessment, if the EHO finds fault,  a schedule of work is drawn up and the offending homeowner or tenant is given twenty-one days to clean up their mess. After this, the officer returns to the property and if necessary, calls in an external body to clean up.

A few members of the audience had brought their packed lunches to the talk. As yet more photos were shared, there was the sound of cutlery being downed by the most hard-stomached of gastronomes.

One particularly repellent image revealed a small flat in Belsize Park buried under three feet of rubbish and a fly infestation of biblical proportions. It took contractors a week to clear the property, from which they removed one and a half tonnes of rubbish and waste.

Throughout the talk, Monica was sympathetic when talking about residents whose homes she had cleared and when questioned on this revealed a surprising empathy: “You feel sorry for them when they begin to open up to you and even trust you.”

This was my first event at Wellcome Collection, and I was fascinated by the content of the talk and impressed by Monica’s ability to entwine emotion and fact, despite her not being a frequent public speaker. And I’ve certainly been reminded of why it’s a good idea to take out the rubbish (on occasion).

Alex Johnson was on a work experience placement at Wellcome Collection.