Sanitary wipes used to combat COVID-19 can clog sewer lines, Raleigh officials warn

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The toilet paper shortage is leading to a problem for cities like Raleigh when it comes to waste treatment.

The city says too many things that shouldn’t be flushed are going down the drain and the city risks having major problems if those items clog up the sewer system.

When the toilet is flushed — what was put in there has to go somewhere.

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Eventually, it ends up at the waste treatment plant, as long as there’s no problem with it getting there.

In an effort to keep be disinfected, people are flushing wipes and other non-disposable items thinking that’s the best place for what could be an item contaminated by the virus.

“We’re starting to see an increase in problems with the sewer system,” said Ed Buchan, who is Raleigh’s environmental coordinator.  “We had a sewer spill yesterday because of wipes.”

Wipes are essentially plastic sheets. They stretch, get caught in pumps and otherwise clog the system.

But what about paper towels? If toilet paper can go down the drain, folks reason why not just flush paper towels too?

But, Buchan says the problem with paper towels is the way they are manufactured to not come apart.

Paper towels don’t break up in water the way toilet paper does — so the only place for them is in the trash headed for the landfill.

If you flush paper towels, it’s trouble for the system.

“They have a commercial where they show how strong they are even when they are wet,” says Buchan.

They call it a sanitary sewer for a reason.

Flushing human waste prevents disease from spreading after it’s treated, but if there are spills, we all risk that disease getting into the environment.

And repair crews are under the same limitations as we are regarding social distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures.

“We’re having to make adjustments on how many staff can be in a car at the same time,” said Buchan. “Normally we have four to five crews respond to a spill.”

Also of concern is tampering with the system.

Believe it or not — it’s happening here in Raleigh.

“Last night we had a log in the system that someone managed to put down a manhole,’’ said Buchan.

Crews had to spend time clearing it from the system.

Not only is that vandalism, but the act could also damage the system and create a situation where a temporary shutdown is needed while crews make repairs.

In 2019, Raleigh says it spent more than $102,000 to deal with 37 sewer spills.

Of those spills, 25 were preventable — caused by things that shouldn’t have been flushed — like wipes.

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