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Popular bathroom wipes blamed for sewer clogs

By Carolyn Thompson

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 03:56 a.m. HST, Sep 23, 2013

BEMUS POINT, N.Y. » Increasingly popular bathroom wipes -- pre-moistened towelettes that are often advertised as flushable -- are being blamed for creating clogs and backups in sewer systems around the nation.

Wastewater authorities say wipes may go down the toilet, but even many labeled flushable aren't breaking down as they course through the sewer system. That's costing some municipalities millions of dollars to dispatch crews to unclog pipes and pumps and to replace and upgrade machinery.

The problem got so bad in this western New York community this summer that sewer officials set up traps -- basket strainers in sections of pipe leading to an oft-clogged pump -- to figure out which households the wipes were coming from. They mailed letters and then pleaded in person for residents to stop flushing them.

"We could walk right up, knock on the door and say, 'Listen, this problem is coming right from your house,'" said Tom Walsh, senior project coordinator at South & Center Chautauqua Lake Sewer Districts, which was dispatching crews at least once a week to clear a grinder pump that would seize up trying to shred the fibrous wipes.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies, says it has been hearing complaints about wipes from sewer systems big and small for about the last four years.

That roughly coincides with the ramped-up marketing of the "flushable cleansing cloths" as a cleaner, fresher option than dry toilet paper alone. A trade group says wipes are a $6 billion-a-year industry, with sales of consumer wipes increasing nearly 5 percent a year since 2007 and expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent annually for the next five years.

One popular brand, Cottonelle, has a campaign called "Let's talk about your bum" and ads showing people trying to wash their hair with no water. It ends with the tagline: "You can't clean your hair without water, so why clean your bum that way?"

Manufacturers insist wipes labeled flushable aren't the problem, pointing instead to baby and other cleaning wipes marked as nonflushable that are often being used by adults.

"My team regularly goes sewer diving" to analyze what's causing problems, said Trina McCormick, a senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Cottonelle. "We've seen the majority, 90 percent in fact, are items that are not supposed to be flushed, like paper towels, feminine products or baby wipes."

Wastewater officials agree that wipes, many of which are made from plastic, aren't the only culprits but say their problems have escalated with the wipes market.

Vancouver, Wash., sewer officials say wipes labeled as flushable are a big part of a problem that has caused that city to spend more than $1 million in the last five years replacing three large sewage pumps and eight smaller ones that were routinely clogging.

To prove their point, they dyed several kinds of wipes and sent them through the sewer for a mile to see how they would break up. They didn't.

Those labeled flushable, engineer Frank Dick said, had "a little rips and tears but still they were intact."

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, has also spent more than $1 million over five years installing heavy-duty grinders, while the Orange County, Calif., Sanitation District, in a single year recorded 971 "de-ragging" maintenance calls on 10 pump stations at a cost of $320,000.

Clogging problems in Waukesha, Wis., prompted the sewer authority there to create a "Keep Wipes out of Pipes" flier. And Ocean City, Md., and Sitka, Alaska, are among cities that have also publicly asked residents not to flush wipes, regardless of whether they are labeled flushable.

The problem got worldwide attention in July when London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton "bus-sized lump" of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes, dubbed the "fatberg."

The complaints have prompted a renewed look at solving the problem.

The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, the trade group known as INDA, recently revised voluntary guidelines and specified seven tests for manufacturers to use to determine which wipes to call flushable. It also recommends a universal do-not-flush logo -- a crossed-out stick figure and toilet -- be prominently displayed on non-dispersible products.

The wastewater industry would prefer mandatory guidelines and a say in what's included but supports the INDA initiatives as a start. Three major wastewater associations issued a joint statement with INDA last week to signal a desire to reach a consensus on flushability standards.

"If I'm doing the test, I'm going to throw a wipe in a bucket of water and say it has to disintegrate," said Rob Villee, executive director of the Plainfield Area Regional Sewage Authority in New Jersey.

Nicholas Arhontes, director of facilities support services in Orange County, Calif., has an even simpler rule for what should go down the toilet.

"Only flush pee, poop and toilet paper," he said, "because those are the only things that sanitary sewers were really designed for in the old days."

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Makua wrote:
As an alternate those who use wipes on standard toilets could purchase and install the Asian type toilet seat that provides a water spray to your rear, like a bidet. Get one of these seats and you'll wish all toilets were outfitted with them.
on September 23,2013 | 04:53AM
purigorota wrote:
I have two in my house and I highly recommend too.
on September 23,2013 | 07:24AM
mikethenovice wrote:
I used to work for a roto rooter while I was in college. The things that I saw in the sewer systems is incredible. People, the toilet is not a wastebasket. You are making it more expensive for the sewer plant to maintain the plant if you insist on tossing eveyrthing in the commode. And stop throwing money coins also. Lots of shiny quarters down in the pipes. But don't go down there. The gases will kill you.
on September 23,2013 | 07:15AM
Mike, if you have little ones you'll understand that many of the time, the items you are discussing get there via little hands.
on September 23,2013 | 01:32PM
mikethenovice wrote:
This is where the HI5 recycling fee will keep it out of the wrong place.
on September 23,2013 | 07:18AM
mikethenovice wrote:
A HI5 fee will keep the wipes out of the sewer pipes.
on September 23,2013 | 07:19AM
localguy wrote:
Shhhh. One of our dysfunctional bureaucrats just may jump on this. Their standard.
on September 23,2013 | 07:42AM
loquaciousone wrote:
I remember when bathroom wipes were just leaves.
on September 23,2013 | 07:33AM
localguy wrote:
Lucky for us poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and stinging nettles do not grow in the Nei. And if you remember even further back, they used corn cobs. Ahhhh the good ole days. hehehe
on September 23,2013 | 07:42AM
Slow wrote:
You notice the Nei has not caught on? And that is offensive to Hawaiians?
on September 23,2013 | 10:42AM
foursun wrote:
offensive to Hawaiians? not all just the real Lolo ones...the ones that are more like Hawaiian version of allie
on September 23,2013 | 03:37PM
allie wrote:
on September 23,2013 | 07:57AM
COlohe1 wrote:
Yeah, fo me , it was just yesterday lol!!!
on September 23,2013 | 07:58AM
Leinanij wrote:
Our wipes were the telephone book in the outhouse. Biodegradable too.
on September 23,2013 | 02:20PM
control wrote:
Bemus Point - I know where that is - a rural farming community about 15 miles from where I grew up. Comedian Lucille Ball was born and raised a few miles from there. Interesting how strange things make the national news.
on September 23,2013 | 07:44AM
allie wrote:
on September 23,2013 | 07:56AM
Upperkula wrote:
Sewer diving, Wow sounds like a C@rappy job.
on September 23,2013 | 08:05AM
st1d wrote:
wrap your usual tissue allowance for a last wipe, run the faucet, moisten the tissues, leave faucet running, wipe. repeat, if necessary. running faucet should remind you to wash hands before returning to keyboard.
on September 23,2013 | 08:29AM
cojef wrote:
Wish the article mentioned other name brands beside "Cottonelle" that are flushable. Thanks to this article will read the labels before buying toilet wipes in the future.
on September 23,2013 | 08:30AM
iwanaknow wrote:
Whatever brand you buy......take one and dip it in a bucket and see if it breaks up.................if not, try another Brand? Or just practice the inokea principal................
on September 23,2013 | 11:10AM
Anonymous wrote:
I think the makers of these so-called "flushable" wipes need to be billed by the municipalities. The taxpayers should not be on the hook while the companies rake in billions selling their sewer-clogging wipes.
on September 23,2013 | 04:32PM
GooglyMoogly wrote:
Forget for a second how ludicrous your idea is. How would you distribute the billing? The better application of funds would be educating consumers that these wipes are not as flushable as they claim to be.
on September 23,2013 | 10:09PM
niimi wrote:
Items commonly seen in mens restroom urinals: paper towels, paper, gum, cigarettes. Are these men lazy, stupid or wanting to clog a urinal?
on September 23,2013 | 06:57PM
foursun wrote:
niimi sad that you would need someone to explain this to you but Men and Women are different and there are disgusting individuals all around, gum and cigarettes in the urinals are disgusting but so are used tampons, sanitary napkins and soiled undergarments left on the floor, dumped in the toilet or left on the toilet paper dispensers.
on September 24,2013 | 03:09AM
niimi wrote:
The money wipes used to wipe the behind of every politician to support steal on steal rail is what got flushed into our sewers further clogging and exposing the years of neglect to fund our island's sewer systems.
on September 23,2013 | 10:05PM
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