COVID-19 Cleaning Clogging Pipes, Sewers


In addition to a global health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shortage of several household items including hand sanitziers, disinfectants and, of course, toilet paper.

According to officials, some of the products used as substitutions and alternatives for the latter are becoming an issue for professionals in the wastewater industry.

Wipes in the Pipes

According to multiple reports across the U.S., wastewater treatment officials have been having to remind their local residents not to flush sanitary wipes down the toilet. Many of these affected areas’ plumbers and public officials are reportedly experiencing a surge in backed-up sewer lines and even overflowing toilets, among other issues.

"In the history of wastewater treatment facilities, [wipes] are new consumer products that are incompatible with sewer systems and pumps," Bill Patenaude, Principal Engineer in the Office of Water Resources at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Recently, in Narragansett, Rhode Island, two wastewater pumps failed after becoming clogged with flushed wipes. And in another Rohde Island town, a wipe-related incident actually blocked a sewer line, causing sewage to backup into the basements of four homes in the area.

A spokesperson from Veolia North America explains that the latter of the events took roughly 14 hours, five employees and roughly $20,000 to fix.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District also sent out warnings to its residents regarding products and wipes claiming to be “flushable.”

“Flushable wipes are not truly flushable,” said Jim Bunsey, Chief Operating Officer of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. “They might go down the drain, but they do not break up like regular toilet paper.”

Bunsey adds that paper towels, facial tissues and disinfecting wipes are also not flushable and that people should dispose of the products in the trash to save their drains.

Additionally, the California State Water Resources Control Board issued a similar warning, while The Los Angeles Times reports that legislators went as far to introduce Assembly Bill 1672 last year, which aims to require certain nonwoven disposal products, such as wipes, to carry a label saying they should not be flushed. Should the bill get passed, the legislation could authorize a civil penalty not to exceed $2,500 per violation.

Bill Winter, assistant deputy director of L.A. County Public Works adds that the county has already issued advice on the matter and is preparing for possible issues.

With that being said, should alternate paper products make it through your household or residential drainage system, it could still lead to potential issues for equipment at wastewater treatment plants and pumping stations and later, could even affect lakes, rivers and oceans where they become even more harmful to public health and the environment.

Although facilities traditionally have the tools to pull solid and insoluble materials from the water to avoid these issues, too much of any kind of debris can make its way into grinders and other equipment.

However, its not just the wipes and paper products themselves that are the issue, but what they can absorb. Medium reports that wipes can bind with fats, oils and grease—which is also something you shouldn’t put down your drain—creating a more solid verses soluble issue.

Also known as “fatbergs,” the waste cluster can sometimes reach the consistency of concrete. The state of New York reports that it spends roughly $18.8 million every year just to degrease, unclog and repair sewers and plant equipment affected by fatbergs.

According to Vince Morris, a spokesperson for DC Water, there are two coronavirus-related factors driving the increase of wipe and other strong-paper products. One is that people are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations regarding disinfecting high-touch surfaces, however, are disposing of the wipes in the toilet instead of the trash.

Morris points the other increase in wastewater issues to the shortage of toilet paper and that affected residents are choosing to flush toilet paper alternatives such as makeup wipes, baby wipes, facial tissues or even paper towels down the drain.

"Any paper product that’s designed to be strong is going to be a problem in the sewers," Patenaude concluded. "The only thing that should be going into toilets is anything that comes out of us and toilet paper. That’s it.”

The water and wastewater industry is identified on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency's recently released memorandum identifying essential critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

View all of PaintSquare Daily News' coverage on COVID-19, here.


Tagged categories: COVID-19; Health and safety; Infrastructure; NA; non-potable water; North America; Pipeline; Pipes; Quality control; Quality Control; Stormwater; Wastewater Plants

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