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Editorial: Dispose of 'wipe' products in the trash, not the toilet

Aug. 12, 2013 @ 11:10 PM

Many Tri-State residents were reminded three weeks ago just how outdated and inadequate Huntington's sewer system is when a burst of rain prompted another round of flooding in the city's streets.

The basic problem is that the sewer system, much of it a century old, is mostly made up of lines that carry both storm water and sewage. Those combined lines often overflow during heavy rain. The issue -- which also leads to untreated water flowing into streams, rivers and basements -- has been around for decades. But the cost of fixing it is estimated from $500 million to $1 billion, and that expense is simply beyond the city's financial reach any time soon. For residents and non-residents who face these occasional floods, there's little that can be done.

But there is something people can do about another sewer-system problem that has cropped up in recent years. To put it in the words of Huntington Sanitary Board officials, "keep wipes out of the pipes."

The "wipes" are those cloth-like products that have proliferated for cleaning or personal hygiene uses, such as baby wipes. Some of the products are touted on the labels as flushable -- and indeed some may be -- and others are not, perhaps even carrying a warning label in small print that they shouldn't be flushed down the toilet.

But more and more of these wipes indeed are being flushed down toilets, causing problems in many sewer systems across the country, including Huntington's, because they do not disintegrate as readily as toilet paper.

The consequences, according to Sanitary Board officials, are a lot of extra maintenance work and the potential for costly repairs. "It doesn't take but a dozen of these things to clog a pipe or a pump," said Wes Leek, manager of inspections and engineering for the Sanitary Board. Executive Director Kit Anderson noted that a clogged pump can burn up, and replacing or repairing it is costly.

Two months ago, maintenance workers spent two days unclogging a pump station in a residential area near the Huntington Museum of Art. Enough wipes to fill two five-gallon buckets caused the problem, Leek said.

Fortunately, local officials haven't come across a problem to the extent of one that occurred recently in London. There, an investigation into sewer backups found a 15-ton blob of congealed fat and baby wipes lodged in a sewer drain. The fat from household oil and food fat poured into the sewers had collected around the wipes.

Manufacturers of the wipes contend that the products they label as flushable do indeed break apart, but a test by Consumers Report suggests that not all wipes are created equal in this regard. The consumer organization said it tested several brands of "flushable" wipes. While toilet paper disintegrated after about eight seconds, the wipes hadn't broken down after 30 minutes, according to USA Today.

In response to criticism, an industry group says it is working on "flushability guidelines" for wipes and developing a "Do Not Flush" logo for products, USA Today reported.

Those steps may help, but the best thing for people to do is to follow the Sanitary Board's wishes. "Throwing them in the trash is the best advice we can give," Anderson said. "Residents are running the risk of clogging the pipes in their own home or clogging a collection pipe down the street that is going to cause their basement to back up."

Nobody wants that.

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