Public Health & Recreation

DEM: Stop Flushing Wipes! Causes Damage to Sewer Systems

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A pump removed from the Congdon Street pump station in Narragansett on March 19 was clogged with wipes and paper towels. (DEM)

With new reports of damaged pump stations and overwhelmed screening facilities in Rhode Island wastewater collection and treatment systems, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is again urging Rhode Islanders to refrain from flushing disinfectant wipes, including those labeled “flushable.”

These items should be thrown in the trash. DEM is also asking retailers to post signs alerting customers not to flush wipes.

“Proper functioning of our wastewater treatment system is critical to protecting public health by preventing viruses and bacteria from getting into your homes, onto roadways and into our waterways,” DEM director Janet Coit wrote in the second such agency press release this week. “Among the other protective measures needed at this time, Rhode Islanders need to be vigilant about what they do and don’t flush!”

This week, the town of Narragansett reported a failure of two pumps at one of its sewer pumping stations. The damage resulted from a buildup of wipes clogging the inner core of both pumps. While the swift action of wastewater staff prevented a release of sewage into the environment, the cost of responding to the failure, setting up temporary bypass systems, and eventual repairs is estimated at $7,300, according to DEM.

Also this week, wastewater crews in the town of Burrillville reported similar buildups of wipes in its collection systems.

Whether your home or business is connected to the public sewer system or has an onsite wastewater treatment system, DEM said you should never flush any type of wipe down the toilet.

In addition to causing clogs and wastewater collection system overflows, flushing wipes can also lead to sewer backups in basements and damage wastewater treatment equipment. Although some of these products may be labeled as “flushable,” most wipes are made with fine plastic mesh that doesn’t break down in water as toilet paper does. These wipes are clogging and damaging expensive wastewater pumps and sewer lines in Rhode Island and across the nation.

At a time when washing hands and wiping down surfaces is more frequent because of the coronavirus pandemic, DEM is strongly urging residents and businesses owners to do their part and help avoid sewer-system damage and overflows.

According to the Water Environment Federation, the following items should never be flushed: Baby wipes and diapers; rags and towels; cotton swabs; syringes; candy and other food wrappers; clothing labels; cleaning sponges; toys; plastic items of any kind; aquarium gravel or kitty litter; rubber items such as latex gloves; cigarette butts; sanitary napkins; hair; underwear; disposable toilet brushes.

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