Flushable Wipes and Water Damage Restoration
Some municipalities say they are facing a growing problem: More “flushable” wipes being disposed of down toilets are clogging pipes, jamming pumps and sending raw sewage into homes causing water restoration demand to soar and endangering waterways.
Utilities have urged customers for years to ignore “flushable” labels on popular wipes used by nursing home staffs, potty-training toddlers and people who prefer something more durable than toilet paper. This has been a growing problem in recent years. However, some utilities say their wipe troubles significantly worsened a year ago during a pandemic-induced toilet paper shortage, and have are still causing havoc with no end in sight.
They say some customers who resorted to baby wipes and personal hygiene wipes have stuck with them long after the toilet paper shortage ended. Another theory: People who wouldn’t take wipes to the office are using more while working from home.
Another faux-pas that is compounding the woes: More disinfectant wipes are getting improperly flushed, utilities say, as people sanitize counters, light switches and doorknobs. Paper masks and latex gloves being thrown into toilets and washed into storm drains also are jamming sewer equipment and causing water damage in homes. Needing water restoration after a backflow of raw sewage into your home can lead to other issues that may require expensive mold remediation.
At a Maryland wastewater pumping station, about 700 tons of wipes were removed last year. This was a a 100-ton leap over 2019. Utilities say the wipes twist into grotty chunks, either in a home’s sewer pipe or miles down the line. They then gel with grease and other cooking fats improperly sent down drains to form sometimes massive oily globs of clothlike material and fat that block pumps and pipes, sending sewage backing up into homes and waterways.
In Charleston, S.C., the utility company paid an additional $110, to prevent and clear wipe-related blockages and expects to do so again this year. Wipe-catching screens that used to need maintenance once a week are requiring it three times a week, officials said.
There are now multiple lawsuit lawsuits against wipes manufacturers with labels claiming that the wipes are flushable. One stemmed from a 2018 blockage in which divers had to swim down 90 feet through raw sewage into a dark wet well to remove a 12-foot-long mass of wipes from three pumps.
In the Detroit area, one pumping station averaged about 4,000 pounds of wipes collected weekly after the pandemic began — four times as much as before, officials said.
Washington D.C. has not faired any better than the rest of the country. Their Pumps at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Southwest Washington are part of the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world. and less vulnerable to debris, officials said, but the utility continues to see wipes blocking pipes.
So what is the culprit? Who is to blame? Wipes? Officials in the nonwoven fabrics industry say their wipes have gotten a bad reputation from people flushing baby wipes, sanitizing wipes and others that aren’t meant for toilets.
The recently established Responsible Flushing Alliance, funded by 14 wipes manufacturers and suppliers, supports state legislation that would require “do not flush” labels on the 93 percent of wipes sold that aren’t designed for flushing.
Last year, Washington state became the first to require the labels. Five more states — California, Oregon, Illinois, Minnesota and Massachusetts — are considering similar legislation, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Their goal is to help people understand the vast majority of these products that keep our homes safe are not intended to be flushed. The flood damage can be extensive and the water damage repair reach into the thousands of dollars per property.
However, 7 percent of wipes sold as “flushable” have plant-based fibers that, like toilet paper, break down when flushed and become grotesque clothy fat globs. Studies have found that 1 to 2 percent of the wipes were designed as flushable, were probably getting tangled quickly before they could disintegrate.
The current roadblock in finding a solution is that the wipes industry and city utilities continue to disagree on testing standards for how quickly, and how much of the actual product, should have to break apart to be considered “flushable.”
Utility officials say they fear the conundrum will outlast the pandemic as some consumers form new habits. The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry said sales of disinfecting and flushable wipes have soared about 30 percent and are expected to remain strong.
As of early April, sales of bathroom cleaning wipes were up 84 percent, and “bath and shower” wipes were up 54 percent compared to the 12-month period ending in April 2020, according to Chicago-based NielsenIQ, which tracks consumer behavior. Sales of premoistened wipes for toilet use had jumped by 15 percent as of April 2020 but have dropped slightly since.
In the meantime, some flushable wipes manufacturers are under fire with class action lawsuits across the country for wreaking havoc on city municipal systems. Other manufacturers are seeing lawsuits not just for the fact that they don’t simply degrade quickly in the sewer systems, but that some of their products might contain a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as Pluralibacter gergoviae which was detected during product testing. This strain of bacteria is an opportunistic pathogen that can cause health effects in humans. Individuals who have a weakened immune system, suffer from pre-existing conditions, have been treated surgically, or belong to another sensitive group of persons are at particular risk of harm.
All in all, the verdict is out on the future for disposable wipes across the board. Changes must be made and each municipality has its own idea of exactly what those changes should be.
Closer to home, the wastewater division of Greater Ft. Lauderdale asks that everyone be careful what they flush. Items that should not be flushed include paper towels, disposable cleaning rags, dust rags and diapers. “Flushable wipes” really aren’t. All these products get tangled in impellers at the pump stations, slowing their capacity and, in some cases, disabling them completely until repairs are made.
Across the country, utilities are asking customers to stick with the “three P’s” — pee, poop and (toilet) paper — when they flush.
City municipalities ask that people use the wipes as needed. But never flush them down the toilet. Just put them in the garbage instead. Those with septic systems may already know the havoc wipes can wreak on delicate septic systems and plumbing. The rest of us must take heed.
Even though we, at SERVPRO of North Lauderdale and West Tamarac are always happy to clean up after an overflow in your home or business from flushing one too many wipes down the toilet. We must also encourage everyone to do their part in keeping our sewage systems safe and clean from debris-especially wipes.