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Disinfecting wipes to fight coronavirus can clog up pipes and lead to sewage mess

Is self-isolation stressing you out? Imagine if your toilet and sewage pipes backed up into the house you’re not supposed to leave.

That nightmare possibility increases if residents flush all the disinfecting wipes they’re suddenly running through to stop the spread of coronavirus, the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department warns.

The department is pleading with residents not to flush wipes — bleach wipes, baby wipes, sanitizer wipes, dust wipes and even “flushable” wipes — but to put them in the trash instead.

Those wipes don’t break down in wastewater like toilet paper and human waste. They accumulate, mix up with grease, clog the pipes and lead to sewage overflows. They can also stop pump stations from working properly and lead to malfunction at the county’s three wastewater treatment plants, said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade water and sewer.

“This increase in the use of cleaning wipes is only exacerbating a problem we deal with on a daily basis,” Messemer-Skold said. “The longer this goes on and the more non-flushable items people throw in the toilet, the higher the probability we’ll see an increase in clogged pipes, potentially causing sewer main breaks.”

The county has noticed “anecdotal evidence” of an increase over the past week in the volume of wipes mixed in the sewage arriving at Miami-Dade’s three wastewater treatment centers, but Water and Sewer technicians haven’t formally assessed the increase. The county already removes 300 tons of wipes from its sewer system every month — about three young blue whales or 50 male African elephants — and the cleaning frenzy in response to the coronavirus will likely increase that volume, Messemer-Skold said.

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Many wipe users are under the impression that the products are made of cotton and will disintegrate in the wastewater. But many brands are made of synthetic materials, which may take months to break apart. Moreover, grease that’s routinely poured down kitchen drains turn into a sort of glue that clumps wipes together, creating huge masses that accumulate along the pipes. Waste workers refer to these masses of flushed non-biodegradable material as “fatbergs.”

The county is calling on its 2.3 million consumers to only flush the three P’s: pee, poop and (toilet) paper. Its campaign ThinkBeforeYouFlush lists a dozen items that should never be flushed, including dental floss, cotton balls, sanitary items and diapers to protect Miami-Dade’s 6,700 miles of underground sewer pipes, over 1,000 pump stations and the three wastewater plants that treat about 300 million gallons every day.

The scarcity of toilet paper at local stores also could create a new problem for the county: some people are using paper towels and wet wipes instead, and tossing those in the toilet bowl. Face tissues and the misleadingly safe “flushable wipes” are also a no-no, plumbing repair company Roto-Rooter says on its website.

“If you’re all out of toilet paper, there’s no perfect solution, but you should never flush wet wipes, paper towels and napkins. They don’t dissolve quickly in water and are likely to cause your toilet to back up,” the company says under its “ Flushing rules.”

Clearing and repairing clogged sewer lines and pumps cost the county $3.4 million a year but some repairs are the responsibility of the home or business owner. If toilets back up or pipes under a house clog, the plumbing bill won’t be cheap, starting at $70-$165 for the first hour of service plus parts and equipment. And that’s just for simple stoppage issues; if pipes need to be checked with a camera, the cost could be as high as $350, said Carmen Alvarez from Coral Gables Plumbing.

Isolating families with young kids also potentially face more challenges.

“We are expecting an increase in calls now because a lot of people dispose of these items in the toilet,” Alvarez said, adding that she has already noticed more calls related to toys getting stuck in toilets. “Today we removed a toy car that was blocking a pipe; three little kids were playing around the house and one managed to throw the toy in the toilet.”

This story was originally published March 23, 2020 5:49 PM.

Adriana Brasileiro covers environmental news at the Miami Herald. Previously she covered climate change, business, political and general news as a correspondent for the world’s top news organizations: Thomson Reuters, Dow Jones - The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, based in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris and Santiago.
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