Some wastewater utilities say they are facing a nasty pandemic problem: More disposable wipes being flushed down toilets are clogging pipes, jamming pumps and sending raw sewage into homes and waterways.
Utilities have urged customers for years to ignore “flushable” labels on increasingly popular, premoistened wipes used by nursing home staffs, potty-training toddlers and people who shun toilet paper. But some utilities say their wipe woes significantly worsened a year ago during a pandemic-induced toilet paper shortage, and have yet to let up.
They say some customers who resorted to baby wipes and “personal hygiene” wipes appear to have stuck with them long after toilet paper returned to store shelves. Another theory: People who wouldn’t take wipes to the office are using more while working from home.
More disinfectant wipes also are getting improperly flushed, utilities say, as people sanitize counters and doorknobs. Paper masks and latex gloves tossed into toilets and washed into storm drains also are jamming sewer equipment and littering rivers.
At WSSC Water, which serves 1.8 million residents in the Maryland suburbs, workers at its largest wastewater pumping station removed about 700 tons of wipes last year — a 100-ton jump over 2019.
“It started last March and really hasn’t eased up since,” said WSSC Water spokeswoman Lyn Riggins.
Utilities say the wipes twist into ropy wads, either in a home’s sewer pipe or miles down the line. They then congeal with grease and other cooking fats improperly sent down drains to form sometimes massive “fatbergs” that block pumps and pipes, sending sewage backing up into basements and overflowing into streams. On Wednesday, WSSC Water said 10,200 gallons of untreated sewage reached a creek in Silver Spring after an estimated 160 pounds of wipes plugged a pipe.
You’ve seen the gross sewer-blocking fatberg pics? Here’s how government, industry and shoppers can all help stop wet wipes clogging our drains and oceans.
Fatbergs – those revolting sewer mountains made of wet wipes, grease and other gunk – have been cropping up all over the place in the past year or so, from London and Cardiff to Staffordshire and Devon.
As well as causing trouble in wastewater systems, wipes can find their way into oceans. Along with other types of plastic pollution, they can cause long-term problems for sea creatures and the marine environment.
Wet wipes made up more than 90% of the material causing sewer blockages that Water UK investigated in 2017
Friends of the Earth commissioned a report from research group Eunomia, Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution [PDF]. This reveals our everyday habits that result in all sorts of plastics getting into our seas. Sometimes from seemingly unlikely sources, such as medical wet wipes.
Used to be that only babies’ behinds were cleaned up with wet wipes. But in recent years, the popularity of similar products for adults has surged—they're part of the $1.4 billion and growing “personal wipes” category of hygiene products, according to a market research report. You’ve seen them on drugstore shelves, and maybe you even use them. But while adult wipes are clearly good for business, we were curious: Are their any health benefits to using them instead of toilet paper?
Basically, no. “There is no medical advantage to cleaning up with baby wipes for adults as opposed to toilet paper,” says Holly Phillips, M.D., a women’s health specialist in New York City and a medical contributor to CBS News. “It comes down to what makes you feel clean and fresh.” Still, keep in mind that some wipes might be pre-moistened with aloe, vitamin E, alcohol, and other gentle- or harmless-sounding additives that might actually irritate sensitive skin and leave your bum stinging and inflamed. “Play it safe by going for an unscented, unmedicated, chemical-free brand of wipe,” says Phillips.
More important than what you wipe with (remember, until toilet paper was invented in the 19th century, people used newspaper, clay, leaves, and even corncobs, which couldn’t have felt good) is how you wipe. You’ve heard a million times to do it from front to back to prevent the germs present in feces from getting near your urethra and causing a urinary tract infection—but it’s still smart advice, says Phillips. You also want to wipe firmly but not press or rub hard, which can lead to small abrasions in your anal area. And don’t leave the bathroom until you’re all cleaned off if you can help it. Leaving a little poop behind can lead to itching and irritation—not to mention a surprise on your thong.
Finally, even though adult wipes are supposed to be flushable, sewer and waste officials can tell you that it isn’t true, and wipes are clogging up pipes and sewers, causing major damage. “Just toss them in the trash or diaper disposal,” says Phillips.
Household wipes are hard to come by these days. As the number of cases of the novel coronavirus began to climb quickly in the U.S. in March, worried consumers began pantry-loading supplies like household cleaners and disinfectants, including wipes. For months, shelves have been emptied of these products, and when they are restocked, they’re gone within the hour.