If it's flushable, it sells, even if it's not

Move over tampons, you've got competition! The term certainly is a catchy phrase. Add safe for sewer and septic systems and you've got a very powerful sales pitch. Evidently the definitions of and are subject to interpretation. If a given product can make it through a water closet, it's certainly flushable, but does that make it suitable for being introduced into a sanitary sewer line? If it doesn't

Move over tampons, you've got competition! The term “flushable” certainly is a catchy phrase. Add “safe for sewer and septic systems” and you've got a very powerful sales pitch. Evidently the definitions of “flushable” and “safe” are subject to interpretation. If a given product can make it through a water closet, it's certainly flushable, but does that make it suitable for being introduced into a sanitary sewer line? If it doesn't explode or cause physical damage to the sewer line or septic system, does that mean the product therefore is safe?

Here's the deal: The only things that should be flushable are toilet paper, urine and fecal matter. Over the years, we've removed tons of things that made it through the water closet but never made it through the customer's sewer line. That “flushable” list includes toys, diapers, socks, underpants, false teeth, jewelry, hypodermic needles, a bank deposit bag, golf balls, a soft ball, Mason jar lids, pets (deceased) and more. Tampons long have been the single most reliable sewer-stopper — until now.

I recently was asked to visit with a customer whose sewer had been clogged. Our mechanic removed a number of small cloth-like obstructions. They were tough as nails and hard to remove from the sewer machine cable auger, having been tightly wound and bound. It turns out they were wipes — the kind of wipes we'd often used while cleaning up a diaper disaster some 20 years ago. They're the wipes that are soft and comfy for little tykes bums with soothing medications to help stave off diaper rash. Since that time, they've become quite popular for adult use too. As we were talking, I suggested that such a product should not be flushed, and our customer immediately produced the package of wipes. In bold letters it stated, “Flushable Wipes,” and the customer assumed that meant exactly that! The customer was understandably upset that the wipes caused the sewer line to clog, that several wipes had to be removed from the water closet trap-way and that it cost a bundle to have the sewer line cleaned. The customer also thinks the manufacturer will reimburse the cost. I'm not holding my breath.

Flushable wipes? Try telling that to the sewer department in Falmouth, Maine, where they're finding pumps fouled with flushable wipes or the Village of Germantown Hills, Ill., where flushable wipes now are illegal to flush. Given that the wipes in question will be loaded with the users' DNA, the wipe police will be able to match wipes to offenders! The Portland Water District is planning to spend $4.5 million to upgrade in their battle-of-the-wipes. Search the net using the terms “flushable wipes” and “clog” and you'll find clogged sewers and toilets overflowing all across America. Evidently wipes are quite good at draining consumers' bank accounts, with people paying enormous sums to repair clogged sewers and water closets. Anger and tempers are overflowing too. After reading the litany of angry complaints, it strikes me as odd that some enterprising lawyer hasn't yet filed a class action suit.

Curiosity got the best of me following the meeting with our customer, so I visited local supermarkets and drug stores to check out the wipes. I'm pleased to report that most carry labels indicating they should not be disposed of via the water closet. But there are more than a few displaying the word “flushable,” which no doubt captures consumers' desire to get rid of the messy wipe with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind flush. (And you'll find them in both the infants and adults departments.) It sure beats having to put them in the trash where someone might see them after you've cleaned your nether-regions. I have vivid 20-year-old memories of diaper explosions. I'd bet you that a full pack of wipes would not have been sufficient to clean those battlefields! There was, however, one pack of wipes in particular that caught my attention because it claimed the wipes “break up like toilet paper after flushing” and repeated the universal mantra about being “safe for sewer and septic systems.” It was time to buy some samples.

Breaks up just like toilet paper after flushing? Well, it didn't break up like the soft tissue we have at home. An hour later, the wipe was still intact and not inclined to disintegrate. Meanwhile, our TP became mush almost the second it hit the water. As for the other flushable wipes, they showed no signs of disintegration, and trying to tear them apart was a strenuous exercise. In my mind's eye, I easily can see how flushable wipes can cling to toilet trap-ways and the interior walls of piping due to capillary attraction — like a wet leaf sticking to a driveway or sidewalk. Add a snag of any type along the way and the wipes will get hung up. Toss in some dental floss and a few tampons and you'll have created the perfect storm for clogging sewer lines!

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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