Fayette County

So-called ‘flushable wipes’ pile up in Lexington sewers

Those “flushable” wipes you put down the toilet may have to be removed by hand from the city sewage equipment they clog.

The cleansing cloths, dubbed “flushable wipes,” are marketed for post-toilet use but are typically not biodegradable. They do not dissolve like toilet paper does when flushed, and once in the sewer system, they can clump together and cause problems.

It’s a mess Rod Chervus, the collections and conveyance manager for Lexington’s sanitary sewer department, has been dealing with for several years, and it’s getting worse.

“If it says ‘flushable wipe,’ don’t believe it. Don’t flush it down the toilet,” he said.

The problems have plagued cities throughout the nation, including in Bradenton, Fla., where wipes caused an 18-inch sewer line to break and send 80,000 gallons of wastewater into a creek last week.

According to the New York Times, New York City spent $18 million in five years on wipe-related equipment troubles. Several major retailers, including Walmart, Target and Costco, faced a lawsuit from New York homeowners in 2017 about misleading claims on wipes packaging.

About six years ago, members of the nationwide Water Environment Federation began talking about wipes found in pipes and sewer systems, Chervus said. Kentucky and Tennessee were mostly unaffected, but two years later, it was a different story.

“Flushable” wipes can move through pipes, but they accumulate in the city’s pump systems, according to Chervus.

“It just seems like they are able to flush and often go through the pipes because they are relatively smooth, but in the pump system, that’s when they start getting clumped together,” he said.

When clogs occur in the pumps, the workers have to clean them out — sometimes by hand. Small obstructions are normally solved with grinders that chew up the products, Chervus said.

Clogs are occurring more frequentlyin the city’s larger stations that pump more than 3,000 gallons of wastewater per minute and millions of gallons per day, Chervus said.

Fixes require workers to flush water through a pump, and if the pumps go down, a spare or emergency pump has to be used, according to Chervus.

Any kind of cleaning wipe can cause serious blockages if flushed.

Buzz Fetick, owner and plumber with Lexington’s Pro-Fetick Plumbing, tells customers that only toilet paper will dissolve in a toilet.

No matter what companies say on packages, “wipes should not be used in a commode,” he said. “I’ve been doing it 35, almost 38 years, and it’s been an issue ever since they have been around.”

Even in house pipes, wipes can build up over time and cause a line to stop up, Fetick added.

Wipe-produced plumbing mishaps are most prevalent in homes where a long-term health care worker is present, Fetick said. They often use a high number of wipes and flush them, he said.

Because it’s not widely known that no wipes should be flushed, the city has had to get creative to inform the public.

From posting articles about the dangers of flushing wipes on their social accounts to an ongoing series showing one “flushable” wipe submerged in water over time, the city’s Live Green Lexington is trying to warn residents.

Jennifer Myatt, a city environmental initiatives specialist, said people are often surprised by the extent of the problem.

“They say, ‘It’s just one wipe,’ but one wipe a day forever adds up,” Myatt said. “This leads to hundreds of thousands of wipes that can get in the sewer, and they don’t think it can clog ... pipes.”