So called "flushable" wipes causing big problems for local neighborhoods

Published: May. 31, 2013 at 9:09 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 30, 2013 at 9:09 PM EDT
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CONCORD, NC (WBTV) - It's a dirty secret that threatens to cause homeowners a messy, smelly, and expensive problem. All over the country, and right here in the Carolinas, city and water treatment officials say those fresh wipes that are supposed to be flushable, are causing sewer systems to back up, sometimes in people's homes.

Concord, like most cities, uses a truck like this to clear clogged sewer lines, and lately, those clogs are caused by these. The package says they are flushable and that they are sewer and septic safe, Gary Fritz says look at the evidence.

"They say they're biodegradable, they're flushable, but they're not dissolvable," Fritz told WBTV. "They're biodegrading, but after four months, and it doesn't stay in the sewer system for four months."

He's kept a flushable wipe in a jar for months, along with other things that end up in the toilet, to show the difference.

"Household toilet paper that people use, it breaks up, it goes pulpy, this has been in water for four months, see when you shake it up, this is acceptable," Fritz added. "Baby wipes, they do a great job on the baby but they do a terrible job on our sewer system."

Concord officials say that three of Concord's twenty three pump stations have been affected by paper towels and wipes. In one instance, officials say, one pump quit working while another was operating at 60% of capacity.

Recently, the problem was so bad it broke a pump station, twice.

"We've actually had to repair one pump station twice and the last time was about $30,000, and if the pumps shut down the sewer backs up and there were 290 homes hooked to that pump station," Fritz said.

Mark Varnadore of the City of Concord took WBTV to a pump station in one Concord neighborhood to show just what they're talking about.

"Ronnie is cleaning the basket, he made a special tool here that has a sharp edge on one end of it and he's works that back and forth like a hoe to get that paper out of those holes in that basket," Varnadore said while watching a worker clean one of the traps that had become clogs with flushable wipes and other items.

Concord, like any other city, has a lot of sewer pipes to keep clear.

"We have enough of this pipe to stretch from the courthouse of the city to the gates of Disneyworld which is a little over 500 miles," said Fritz.

But a clogged sewer pipe is no Magic Kingdom.

"It goes into your bathtub," Fritz added. "It may go into your toilet once you've used it, the toilet is sealed off until you flush it once, your shower, your dishwasher, your washing machine, places like that."

Forgive the pun, but the bottom line here from Gary is to put flushable wipes in the trash, not the toilet.

"We have a landfill and the landfill is for all biodegradable material, whether it be a hotdog or a baby wipe, it needs to go into the landfill, you don't need to put it down to the toilet, the toilet is for human waste and toilet paper and that's it."

So what do the manufacturers say? A spokesman from Kimberly Clark, the maker of Cottonelle and Scott wipes told the Raleigh News and Observer last week that it's possible that people are putting too much down in a single flush or that the wipes are getting caught up with other materials, such as baby wipes that aren't designed to break down.

And after extensive testing this spring, Consumer Reports recommend bagging them and tossing them out with the trash rather than flushing.

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