With more Idahoans staying home due to coronavirus precautions, public officials advise to only flush toilet paper to avoid costly damage to private and public sewer lines and treatment systems.

Following the City of Grangeville’s coronavirus disaster declaration last week, public works director Bob Mager spoke to the problems abuse causes, which has been an issue long prior to the pandemic panic.

“We’ve been battling this for the last two years,” Mager said.

What are the problem items? Paper towels, for one, and then sanitary wipes, which while the companies may claim they are flushable, Mager explains they don’t break down in the system like toilet paper.

“We get a ton of shop towels,” he said. “They’re absolutely horrible. They’re tough and strong, and they don’t break down. And as they get water in them they tend to get larger.”

Any or all of these items cause issues as they stay intact in the sewer system, sometimes finding a root or an offset joint to hang up on, Mager explained, “and then you soon have a huge blob. In this world of low-flow toilets, there’s not enough liquid coming down to push that down the line.”

At this point, the blockage backs up the line, into manholes, and appears in homeowners’ basements. These items hitting the wastewater treatment plant take additional maintenance to clear from screens; some make it past, going into the treatment ditches where they reduce system capacity.

“The ditches can hold only so much,” he said, “and then we have to take them down, and it can take three days to get them cleared out, washed out.”

The system is designed for human solid and liquid waste, and toilet paper, Mager said. Facial tissues are an option to toilet paper, as they will break down within the system.

“Paper towels were never designed to go down the sewer; they’re designed to be thrown away,” he said. “Sanitary wipes are awesome, and I get it, but they do not break down like toilet paper does. So, this is killing a lot of homeowner systems and the city’s sewer system on the amount of maintenance to keep them washed out.”

With stores at reduced merchandise supply, Mager said they are concerned a shortage of toilet paper will result in individuals using more wipes and towels, and perhaps other items. Socks and T-shirts have ended up in the system, he said, though rarely.

“We’re really afraid of what they’ll flush to be sure they can wipe,” he said.

Last Friday, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued an advisory on protecting sewer systems, and included a list of nonflushable items that includes napkins, baby wipes, Q-tips, moist towels and feminine hygiene products. For those using alternatives to toilet paper, DEQ suggests placing a lidded-container with a disposable plastic bag near the toilet for these products.

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