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Toilet Paper Shortages Likely to Strain Sewer Systems



Lauren Peace, Host: With the spread of coronavirus, stores in New York City and across the country are emptied of toilet paper. Some consumers flush substitutes down the toilet. Experts warn that such bad habits could undermine key public health infrastructure. Sarah Gelbard has the story.

Sarah Gelbard, Byline: New York is on lockdown. Most people are going to the bathroom at home all day. What happens when they run out of toilet paper? They might look for alternatives. When there’s trouble, they call a plumber like Sherman Carson. He says the job is sometimes challenging. To clear a clog, he brings in a machine with a long steel coil that spins down the pipe and out to the street.

Carson: You pull it out and you clean it off, you clean off whole tampons, towel paper, roots, sometimes you have cloth papers like a washcloth or something like that flushed down.

Gelbard: Cynthia Finley is the Director of Regulatory Affairs at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. She says things like tissues and paper towels should never be flushed.

Finley: Paper towels and Kleenex, they are not designed to break apart quickly in water like toilet paper is. Kleenex are actually treated with a chemical binder so they don't fall apart in your hand after you blow your nose. They really don't break apart very quickly when they’re flushed.

Gelbard: Masses of fat, wipes and other materials—called fatbergs—can cause overflows in your basement, but they can also clog the pumps that contain wastewater across the city.

Finley: When pumps get clogged up, the wastewater is not going to move. And then a worker has to go in and clear the stuff out of the pump. That's really difficult. And it places the worker at risk too, because then they are in contact with raw sewage, which can have bacteria and viruses in it. And it also places them in danger of being stuck by hypodermic needles, which unfortunately, people flush sometimes too.

Gelbard: In New York City, the sewer system is vast. It spans over 7,000 miles of pipes. This system separates us from waste that causes disease. When a sewer breaks down, it puts everyone at risk.

Finley: That would be like turning back time, to a time when there was raw sewage flowing down streets in some cities, and people get sick from it all the time. Proper sanitation is actually one of the best public health things that's happened to humankind being able to safely treat human waste and, you know, keep it out of contact with people.

Gelbard: Mikelle Adgate is a senior advisor at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. She reminds residents that only four things can be flushed down the toilet.

Adgate: We protect public health by ensuring that we collect raw sewage and that we treat it properly, and the way our system was designed, it's designed for people to only flush the four Ps, so that's pee, poop, puke and paper, meaning toilet paper.

Gelbard: Adgate says the Department expects an increase in sewer backups as life under quarantine continues. Sarah Gelbard, Columbia Radio News.


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