Many Americans seem to be following the recommendations of public health officials to clean and sterilize countertops, doorknobs, faucets and other frequently touched surfaces in their homes.
The problem? Many are then tossing the disinfectant wipes, paper towels and other paper products they used into the toilet.
The result has been a coast-to-coast surge in backed-up sewer lines and overflowing toilets, according to plumbers and public officials, who have pleaded with Americans to spare the nation’s pipes from further strain.
Many say the woes besieging the nation’s infrastructure have been compounded by the lack of toilet paper on store shelves, which is leading some to use paper towels, napkins or baby wipes instead.
Across the country — in Charleston, South Carolina; northeastern Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and Spokane, Washington — wastewater treatment officials have beseeched residents not to flush wipes down the toilet using the hashtag #WipesClogPipes.
“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.”
The plumbing repair company Roto-Rooter issued a similar plea to its customers, and said that substituting facial tissue for toilet paper was “another bad idea,” unless it’s used in small amounts and flushed frequently.
The California State Water Resources Control Board warned this week that “even wipes labeled ‘flushable’ will clog pipes and interfere with sewage collection and treatment throughout the state.”
“Flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets will clog sewers and cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities, creating an additional public health risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” it said.
The agency said wastewater treatment plants across California were reporting problems.
It noted that most urban sewage systems depend on gravity and water flow to move toilet paper and waste, and were not designed to accommodate disinfectant wipes and paper towels, which do not break down as easily and clog the system.
The board noted that clogged sewer lines are more than just a headache for residents cooped up in their homes during a pandemic. Spills flow into lakes, rivers and oceans, where they can harm public health and the environment, it said.
Plumbers said they were fielding an increase in calls from people working from home and self-quarantining.
“We have noticed an uptick in the amount of clogged main sewer lines and, when we dispatch our technicians, we are pulling baby wipes out of the line and we’re seeing paper towels and Lysol wipes,” Mark Russo, vice president of Russo Brothers & Co., a plumbing and heating service in East Hanover, New Jersey, said on Saturday.
“These items are things that should never be flushed down the toilet,” he said.