Powdered cement spread over the M6 Lancaster and live chickens shed across the M62 near Manchester both feature in a national ‘top ten strangest spills’ list. 

Highways England, which runs the country’s motorway network, published the list – after 24 tonnes of lard closed the M11 in Essex – to highlight the challenges it faces in clearing incidents which can cause hours of disruption to road users.

From animal blood to argon, toilet roll to toxic waste, wine to washing up liquid – highways teams have faced many mammoth challenges to clear up after motorway incidents. 

The unexpected nature of motorway incidents means it can be hard to plan for what may happen on any given day. Over the past few years there have been numerous spills, ranging from the strange to the dangerous.

In every case, highways teams have worked quickly and under pressure to remove debris, clean the road, and fix damage before safely reopening the carriageway to drivers.

In some cases, thousands of items had to be picked up by hand after spreading across several lanes of the motorway.

Melanie Clarke, director of customer operations at Highways England, explained:

“Our roads are among the safest in the world, and safety is our number one priority.

“Our role is to ensure we clear incidents quickly and keep traffic moving to minimise delays. We work closely with the emergency services, in challenging circumstances, to try to keep drivers moving after an incident.

“We know drivers get frustrated when their journeys are disrupted but we do all we can to clean the road quickly after an incident – and it’s often much more complicated than simply moving the vehicles off the road to reopen it. That’s why it can often take longer for us to safely reopen roads when a potentially dangerous substance is spilled in an incident.

“Our teams expect the unexpected, but of course, when you’re dealing with ten tonnes of salmon, dangerous toxic chemicals, or emulsion paint, the clean-up operation is somewhat complicated.”

To help drivers understand the challenges of safely clearing up after an incident, Highways England has compiled the list of the strangest spills on England’s motorways which as well as the cement and chickens incidents includes:

•raw human sewage

•hundreds of tins of baked beans

•20 tonnes of Marmite

•thousands of lager cans

•10 tonnes of salmon

•melamine formaldehyde resin and phosphoric acid

•animal blood

•refrigerated liquid oxygen

The M62 incident happened shortly before rush hour in the early hours of 14 May last year when a lorry on the M62 near  Manchester lost its load of 6,000 chickens. Although more than a 1,000 of the chickens died, rescuers were able to save thousands more after several hours searching the surrounding area in the dark.


Just over 2 months later, between junctions 33 and 34 of the M6 near Lancaster, a collision resulted in powdered cement mixing with diesel and engine oil – and a race against time to clear it up before it started to set on the carriageway on one of the hottest afternoons of the summer.

Specialist teams were called out to help clear the road and traffic officers worked with North West Motorway Police to check on drivers stuck in the resulting queues, and hand out water.  It eventually took 18 hours to clear the road and reopen it safely for drivers.

While unusual shed loads can cause a huge challenge, even everyday spills can pose complications for Highways England’s clean-up teams.

Diesel, which is often spilled after an HGV incident, creates a chemical reaction with asphalt that causes the road surface to rot. Teams have to use highly-specialised hydroblasters to completely clean the road. If any diesel is left over it could create potholes so it’s important that any cleaning is very thorough. If the road is badly damaged, it may have to be totally relaid so the surface maintains its integrity.

Milk poses a similar problem: it rots the road, can stick to the surface and becomes very slippery in wet weather. All traces have to be cleaned off the road before it is safe to reopen.

It also poses problems for wildlife: if it gets into nearby watercourses, from drainage at the roadside, it can deprive the water of oxygen – essentially asphyxiating fish and other animals – so the Environment Agency has to get involved to ensure the spilled substance is properly removed and won’t pose a threat to people or animals. This can cause further delays to traffic while investigations are underway.

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