Last week a Hull schoolboy became yet another victim of a global crime spree. Joshua Star-Harris never met his assailant, but the scars, the broken nose and the lost tooth point to the seriousness of the incident. The crime? Drain cover theft. Joshua was happily riding his scooter near his home when he came to an abrupt stop after his front wheel dropped into the coverless drain.

In some ways, perhaps, Joshua can count himself lucky. The crime of drain cover theft is so widespread that there have inevitably been a significant number of deaths over the past decade. There’s one tragic story from Bogota, Colombia, of a two-year old falling down a drain while chasing birds – her body was found a mile downstream. There are reports of vans in Colombia being equipped with heavy lifting equipment and having a hole cut in the floor, so they merely have to stop over a cover, lift it off and drive away, a procedure that can be completed in moments. It’s a highly organised crime, and just like those in Hull, the criminals don’t care much for the potential victims who are suffering death, injury and damage to their vehicles as a result of their actions.

In China, where there is also an epidemic, the maximum penalty for manhole cover theft is the death sentence. In the build-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there were reports that more than 30 manhole covers were being stolen every day – when each one could collect £100, it’s no wonder.

Stealing drain and manhole covers isn’t a new phenomenon, but it has undergone a huge increase since the mid-00s when the price of ferrous scrap metals started to rise. To a criminal mind, manhole and grid covers are just like cash lying around, and as long as there are uninquisitive or collaborating scrap dealers, there has been an outlet for their ill-gotten drain covers. Ferrous metals have therefore become the new lead, which has been stolen from roofs for decades. While there could be legitimate reasons for selling scrap lead – builders putting a new roof on a house, for example – to sell grid and manhole covers can only be a criminal act, unless it’s a local authority or the Highways Agency doing the selling.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 was an attempt to legislate the problem away. It included measures such as the requirement that scrap dealers do not pay for their goods in cash to make transactions more traceable, and that records are kept of all transactions and the names and addresses of sellers. While this might have put some criminals off, the story from Hull – and countless others around the country – proves that some people will still try their luck.

One solution has been to make manhole covers out of materials that have little or no scrap value, such as non-recyclable plastics. But this is not always an appropriate solution, particularly when the covers are for busy roads; it’s usual for covers on such hhighways to be group 4 (which can withstand 40 tonnes) or group 5 (60 tonnes). Another way of preventing theft is to use anti-theft covers, although nothing is truly immune to the actions of a determined thief.

As long as ferrous metal is valuable enough to risk a spell behind bars, and as long as there are unscrupulous scrap metal merchants willing to buy it, this crime will probably continue to exist. The best defence for the motorist is vigilance and timely reporting of missing covers – and alerting road users and pedestrians to the danger as soon as possible.

We’ve all done it – tried to fish our mobile phones out of storm drain inlets on public streets and then become viral sensations when we got stuck. To be fair to the hapless Ella Birchenough, she seems to have laughed off her close encounter with Dover’s sewerage system. The 16-year-old has already done a few interviews with the press and has even been on Daybreak to talk about her experience.

Fortunately she has the support of her family. In a touching statement on the ordeal, her mother said, “I was really worried. My face went white and I was in a panic. I was scared she might sink. I ran out the house, turned the corner - but as soon as I saw her I burst out laughing.” Thanks, mum.

If you’ve not seen the story and are wondering how she ended up waist deep in a drain, Ella had figured that the best way to retrieve her phone would be to lower herself down and grab the stricken phone with her feet, then un-lower herself out again, dab any water off the phone then go back to school. A career in the Cirque du Soleil would have awaited Ms Birchenough had she pulled that stunt off.

As for the phone, well, it was a write off. Whether it was a written-off BlackBerry or a written-off iPhone depends on which paper you read, but she ended up with a brand new iPhone anyway courtesy of the lovely people at ITV. So after she’s sold the old one on eBay, it’ll turn out to have been a good day at the office for Ella.

So what is the best thing to do when you drop something valuable down a storm drain? Well, first, do a quick visual. Can you see the item or is it submerged (or too dark to see)? If it’s a phone, time is of the essence as every second of seepage increases the likelihood of the phone – and most importantly all its data – being lost. If it’s something really valuable like jewellery, it’s probably best calling for help and standing watch over the drain in case someone else’s prying eyes have seen the whole thing happening. If it’s a valueless but irreplaceable item of sentimental importance, then you’ll have to make a judgement call on getting professional help in.

The overriding rule is SAFETY FIRST. Don’t step out onto a main road and don’t remove grid covers unsupervised. Side streets are safer, but don’t lift a grille and leave it off – that’s dangerous.

You might be able to reach down with your hand and retrieve objects – drains aren’t always as deep as you might think, and often have traps in them too. A child’s fishing net or a hook taped to a cane might be enough to lift it out.

If this all fails and you really want the item back, get in touch with you local authority in the area and see if they can help. It’s possible they won’t be able to or will charge for their services, in which case you could try local domestic drainage companies. Obviously, the amount you’re willing to pay will depend on how deep your pockets are and how much you want the thing, but they will have the tools to do the job.

That’s what the average person should do, anyway; but the average person won’t get on Celebrity Big Brother. It’s your call

The local press has been in something of a fever over the past week or two about the perils of pouring cooking oil down the drain. And when we say local, we mean all those free local newspapers that pop through British people’s doors – and their related websites. They all refer to a YouGov report (which we’ve not been able to track down) that says something along the lines of: “X per cent of [insert local town] residents pour their cooking oil down the drain and Y per cent don’t know that they will have to pay for damage.” Here are a few examples for your delectation, from as far afield as Blackpool and Gloucestershire.

While we suspect this might be more of a PR exercise than actual news (there are plenty of mentions of one particular company, let’s just say), at the core of the story is a truth that we in the drain cleaning industry have long known: people do dispose of too much fat down the drains.

Now let’s get one thing clear – it’s impossible to never let any oil go down the drain. Every time you wash a frying pan or a plate that’s had food on it, it’s inevitable that oil and grease will be washed away. Householders and businesses might mitigate the effects by using detergents that break the oils down, and the amounts are often rather small too, but even if we think we’re being careful, it’s not impossible for a build-up to start.

We all know that butter, sandwich spread and lard are solids when they’re in the fridge, but melt at quite low temperatures – and that many oils and fats will return to solid form when they cool down to room temperature after being heated up. Well that’s exactly what happens to oils when we put them down the sink, where they can go from being liquid on the pan or plate to solid as soon as they hit the cool waste water underground. While we need to be mindful, under normal circumstances this won’t be a problem, largely thanks to the washing-up liquids and dishwasher tablets we use.

The real danger comes when people pour used oil straight down the sink, for example when they have been sautéing or doing a Sunday roast. We might even forget just how much oil or butter there is in gravy or béchamel sauce and pour any excess down the sink. But worst of all are those who will empty their deep-fat fryers straight down the kitchen sink. It’s only a matter of time before this practice will result in a blockage.

The “report” is also correct to point out that blockages are not always the responsibility of the local authorities or water companies –quite often it’s the householder who has to foot the bill. Landlords are particularly susceptible to unexpected unblocking bills because they might own several properties and with a high turnover of tenants in each, it would be difficult (and unfair) to pin the blame for a blockage on the current resident. At the very least, landlords should include a line about disposing of oil in their contracts. They might also consider installing grease traps, too.

So we say to the good people of Blackpool, Halifax, Gloucestershire, Hucknall, Swindon ... “Stop and think – not down the sink” (the official mantra, apparently). It’s much better to get an old cooking oil bottle and a funnel and use it to keep your used oils. Many local authority recycling yards will now take it, and it can be burnt as a clean source of energy, so you’ll not only be avoiding blocked drains – you’ll be helping the planet too.