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Experts: ‘Only toilet paper down the tubes amid COVID-19’

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 25, 2020

Throngs of shoppers stocked up on toilet paper and tissues ahead of state-ordered COVID-19 shutdowns, leaving store shelves empty across the country.

But public works administrators are hoping those panic purchases won’t result in an influx of gunk in our sewer systems, causing backups or maybe worse.

In response to the high demand for toilet paper, flushable wipes and other sanitary products prompted by the coronavirus crisis, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said he wants to remind people that some of the items advertised as “flushable” are far from it.

“We spend more than $300,000 a year cleaning the sewer system because of flushable wipes that clog the system and create sewer backups, which can cause damage to residents’ homes,” Nash said in a press release. “I fear that greater pressure is going to be put on the system. The proper way to dispose of nonflushable items is to simply throw them in the garbage.”

Along with “flushable” wipes and baby wipes, which the Great Lakes Water Authority explained are not biodegradable and don’t effectively break down after use, Nash released a list of other items that should never be flushed down a toilet or drain: tampons and other sanitary products, condoms, paper towels, dental floss, cotton balls and swabs, cat litter, cooking oils or food — think FOG, or fats, oils and grease — and cigarette butts.

The GLWA added that prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications shouldn’t be flushed either, as they can be difficult to filter out and can seep into groundwater, polluting the water we and other animals need to survive.

For that reason, water customers should ideally be picky about the types of soap they use to wash their hands.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy suggests that soaps with antibacterial or antimicrobial agents should be avoided because in large amounts those chemicals could impact the biological community in septic tanks and drain fields.

Soaps with certain debris are frowned upon too, like those with microplastic pieces — think the tiny balls meant for skin exfoliation — or decorative bits and pieces, like glitter. In large amounts over time, those could result in a buildup in our natural environment too, and maybe our drinking water supply.

That’s under normal circumstances, according to EGLE media relations and public information official Nick Assendelft. And as you could probably guess, these are extraordinary times.

“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are asking Michiganders to diligently wash their hands with water and soap for at least 20 seconds as one way to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019,” he said in an email. “EGLE is adamant that public health is of the utmost concern, and EGLE strongly urges everyone to follow Gov. Whitmer’s sound advice to wash their hands vigorously with water and any available soap to reduce the coronavirus risk.”