Sanitary wipes down the drain bring Philly Water Dept. and Aqua Pa. pain

Plastic debris, including tampon applicators and straws, floats on top of sewage and stormwater at the Southwest water pollution control plant in Philadelphia. Water department officials recommend not flushing anything down the toilet except toilet paper. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Plastic debris, including tampon applicators and straws, floats on top of sewage and stormwater at the Southwest water pollution control plant in Philadelphia. Water department officials recommend not flushing anything down the toilet except toilet paper. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated 6:37 p.m.

Sanitary wipes aren’t so sanitary when they clog sewer systems or create nightmarish “fatbergs,” heavy accumulations of grease mixed with undissolvable wipes that create blockages in sewer pipes and wastewater treatment plants.

The Philadelphia Water Department says workers are seeing a surge of these so-called “flushable” wipes clogging up the sewer system since the COVID-19 emergency — and it’s pleading with residents to stop tossing them down the toilet.

“We understand people want to be safe and are using more wipes these days, but flushing any wipe or any material other than toilet paper is just irresponsible,”  Philadelphia Water Department Commissioner Randy E. Hayman said in a release.

Sanitary wipes do not dissolve in water like toilet paper. Instead, they remain intact, which forces workers to pick them out of the pumps, dry them out, and dispose of them in a landfill.

“Even wipes sold as ‘flushable’ often don’t have the science to back up that claim, so it’s a pricey gamble,” Hayman said.

Homeowners could be on the hook for that gamble. If a clog happens in a lateral pipe that runs between a home and the main sewer line, the property owner is responsible.

To illustrate just how many sanitizing wipes are getting flushed, a Water Department representative said that before the coronavirus pandemic, clogs would happen just once or twice a year at a few pumping stations. Clogs are now happening weekly at the 19 pumping stations across the city. Since mid-March, Water Department workers have cleared pumps of 100 pounds of material, including wipes. It usually takes an entire year for the pumps to accumulate that much material.

Todd Duerr, vice president of production for Aqua Pennsylvania, which serves much of the Philadelphia suburbs, said the company’s wastewater systems have also seen an increase in sanitary wipes. That could lead to spills and overflows of raw sewage into residential basements, streets or pump stations, he said.

An Archimedes’ screw at the Southwest water pollution control plant in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It creates a big rat’s nest around the pumps, and they can’t continue to pump the wastewater into the system,” said Duerr.

In addition to wipes, the Philadelphia Water Department said that large quantities of COVID-19 litter, such as gloves and masks, are clogging up sewer and stormwater stations.

The city has a combined sewer/stormwater system, which means anything tossed out on the street as litter will be washed by rainwater into the system.

“Plant managers are adjusting operations to account for the surge in wipes and are conducting additional machinery inspections to prevent clogged pumps when possible, according to a department statement.

And like the often-mislabeled “flushable” wipes, tampons, cigarette butts, and dental floss should be tossed in a trash can, not a toilet.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to add more details about the severity of the problem.

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