British Columbia

B.C. municipalities worry about 'fatbergs' clogging sewers as people flush disinfectant wipes during pandemic

As consumers stock up on disinfectant wipes to control the spread of germs during the coronovirus pandemic, B.C. municipalities say some of those products are making their way into the sewer system, which could lead to serious blockage problems.

Residents asked not to flush wipes, but to put them in the garbage

A 'fatberg' made up of disposable wipes and other wastewater solids pulled from the sewer. (Regional District of South Okanagan-Similkameen)

B.C. municipalities say some of the products people have been using to disinfect their homes during the coronavirus pandemic are making their way into the sewer system and could lead to serious blockage problems.

Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen chair Karla Kozakevich says disinfectant wipes don't break down easily like toilet paper. Instead, they attract other solid materials and oils and can clump together to form giant masses, nicknamed "fatbergs," that clog sewer pipes and treatment plant equipment.

"Wastewater operators have to engage in the very unpleasant task of finding and extracting these blockages," Kozakevich said in a written statement.

The district is one of several B.C. municipalities asking the public to dispose of their disinfectant wipes in the garbage, rather than flushing them.

Many people have recently purchased antiseptic wipes because of the heightened concern around the coronavirus pandemic and are using them to disinfect surfaces in their homes.

Many consumer wipes are marketed as flushable, which can lead people to believe they are ok to flush down the toilet, Kozakevich said.

"In this challenging time when we are spending more time at home as we do our part, we must be conscious that our homes have to function," said Rina Seppen, the district's wastewater utilities foreman.

"The last thing we need is to have the sewer lines clog and essential services stretched as we work to serve the public needs."

Killing off useful microorganisms

The City of Kelowna is seeing an increase of wipes this month in its sewer system as well.

Apart from clogging up the sewers, disinfectant wipes also kill off useful microorganisms that are essential to the process of breaking down organic material in wastewater, said Ed Hoppe, Kelowna's water quality and customer care supervisor.

"The disinfectants have the ability to interfere with our treatment capability," Hoppe said.

"The only thing that we really recommended that people flush down the toilet is toilet paper itself."


Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan