It’s really difficult for hardened newspaper reporters, like our own Mark LaFlamme, to ignore certain stories.
Like those involving blobs. Or anything that happens in a subterranean urban cavern. Or bizarre things that happen to people while seated on toilets.
And if a single story contains all of those items, and if it occurs in such a dignified-sounding place as Kingston Upon Thames?
Well, that’s the kind of story wry reporters dream of covering.
And so it was with a bus-sized ball of baby wipes and grease which threatened to turn London’s Kingston borough into what “The Guardian” newspaper called a “cesspit.”
When residents began to report overflowing toilets, sewage workers quickly discovered what Londoners call a “fatberg,” a ball of solidified grease, oil and baby wipes blocking 95 percent of a pipe about eight feet in diameter and threatening to blow the lids off sewers all across town.
The Guardian explained that fatbergs form when baby wipes and other supposedly flushable synthetic items stick to joints or other crevices in old lead pipes. Fats and oils cling to the synthetic material, which attracts more baby wipes and grease until it forms, at least in this case, a “15-tonne” blob the size of a double-decker bus.
Today, Maine communities are being plagued by a similar, although less dramatic problem, that is costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
While parents flushing baby wipes is part of the problem, the range of wands, wipes and sanitary cleaning cloths has exploded in recent years. That’s accompanied by a 15 percent increase in the number of people using sanitary wipes as toilet paper, or in addition to toilet paper, in recent years.
The items may be flushable, but they are not what the municipal waste industry likes to call “dispersible.”
Charmin Freshmates, for instance, are advertised as “flushable wet wipes (that) provide a cleaner clean than dry bath tissue alone.”
These items are advertised as “flushable,” but that only means they disappear when you flush your toilet.
But, ultimately, what disappears reappears in the mechanical equipment, like pumps and screens, that move and handle our municipal wastewater.
Consumer Reports actually tested the “dispersibility” of such items. Toilet paper in an ordinary mixer turned to mush in eight seconds. After a half hour of mixing, a baby wipe was unchanged and intact.
When the wipes are drawn into a pump, many become jammed around pump parts, particularly between the impellers and the walls of the pump.
These pumps are large, and they will pass anything from a baseball to a chunk of brick, according to John Storer, superintendent of the Auburn Water District.
But they are no match for the range of synthetic items we flush.
When the pumps plug up, as they now do with regularity, workers must disassemble and remove the items by hand.
In 2009, the Portland Water District spent $4.5 million to repair damage done by baby wipes and unflushable products, and the district now has another 80 pumps in need of similar repair, according to a recent report by the Bangor Daily News.
The Maine Wastewater Control Association is conducting a public education campaign and experimenting with ways to educate customers that their toilets are not garbage cans.
That’s a great idea, and you can expect to hear and see more about it in coming months.
But more is necessary.
INDA, the association of the non-woven fabrics industry, needs to speed up efforts to develop third-party testing of its products for dispersibility and set industry-wide standards.
Then it must develop ways of clearly showing consumers which products can be safely flushed and which cannot.
If the industry does not act, federal or state regulation will be necessary. Two states, Maine and California, have already considered such legislation but have temporarily shelved it at the request of manufacturers.
That three years have passed, and that the problem continues to grow, shows that legislation and regulation ultimately may be required.
In the meantime, you can clearly help by not flushing those items. Here’s a list of what NOT to flush that appeared in “Public Works” magazine in 2012:
Household cleaning wipes, baby wipes and facial wipes. Tampons, feminine pads, liners, tampon applicators, packaging and wrappers. Floss, plastics, condoms, packaging and bottle tops.
For more information, you may check www.what2flush.com.
Together, we can all make a difference by canning rather than flushing that stuff.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.