New Brunswick

COVID-19 playing role in Saint John sewage backups

After three sewer backups in one week this month, Saint John Water is asking city residents to stop flushing the wrong things down the toilet. Water commissioner, Brent McGovern suspects the problem is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

People flushing disinfectant wipes down their toilets playing havoc with system.

Wipes clogging municipal sewage treatment machinery. Canadian municipalities say the COVID-19 era has brought a spike in the flushing of wipes. (Halifax Water)

After three sewer backups in one week this April, Saint John Water is asking city residents to stop flushing the wrong things down the toilet.

Water commissioner, Brent McGovern suspects the problem is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

"People are naturally more attentive to cleaning and using disposable wipes in many instances at this time," said McGovern. "Please note these wipes cannot be flushed down your toilet, nor can rubber gloves, so called 'flushable wipes', paper towels, hygiene products, grease or anything of that nature."

One of the incidents caused raw sewage to back up through a manhole cover, spewing untreated waste onto Westmorland Road.

Jason Leclerc, operations manager for the city's water and sanitary systems, said that when a crew arrived at the scene they discovered a sewer line blockage a short distance downstream from the manhole.

"Ultimately, what we found was a big ball of wipes balled together. Almost as hard as — I won't say concrete — but it was very hard."

Problem widespread

Crews had to use a high pressure sprayer to cut the ball into pieces small enough to be vacuumed up.

Another similar incident the same week caused raw sewage to back up into a home.

Moncton put out a similar warning via Twitter on March 23, and Halifax Regional Municipality reported the same problem on April 3.

'People are naturally more attentive to cleaning,' said Brent McGovern, commissioner of Saint John Water. (Roger Cosman, CBC)

And it's not just a problem in the Atlantic region, according to Robert Haller, executive director of the Canadian Water and Wastewater Association.

"There's been a huge increase in the use of disinfectant wipes to clean down counters," said Haller. "And people want that out of their home, I think. They've got this idea of the toilet as a garbage can and they throw them down there. We've even seen rubber gloves going down the toilet.

"This has caused a lot of blockage and backups in cities across Canada."

Haller said toilet paper and human waste are the only things that can be safely flushed down a toilet.

The association is now several years into a fight to get the word "flushable" removed from the packaging of some wipes products.

Industry disputes concerns

But the industry is holding firm. Dave Rousse is the president of INDA, the association of the non-woven fabrics industry.

"They are focusing the blame on the wrong stuff," said Rousse, who maintains the real culprit when it comes to clogged sewer lines are products clearly labelled "not flushable," like baby wipes.

He said wipes labelled flushable are completely safe for the sewer system, although he agreed flushable wipes are considerably stronger than toilet paper.

He claims the industry has its own rigorous testing programs and that the water and wastewater association can't back up its claims with any real evidence.  

"It's not based on science, it's not based on testing, it's purely based on ideology that only pee, poop and paper should be flushed," he said.

Dave Rouse, president of INDA, the association of the non-woven fabrics industry, said cities 'are focusing the blame on the wrong stuff.' (INDA)

But the water and wastewater association can point to a 2019 Ryerson University study that is posted on its website.

Funded by municipalities across the country, the university's department of civil engineering set up a toilet with a drain line leading to a catch basin and then on to something called a slosh box.

Failing grade

The wipes were flushed into the catch basin where they sat in water for 30 minutes. They were then moved into the slosh box, which mechanically rocked the wipes back and forth in water for a further 30 minutes.

Every brand of toilet paper tested dissolved and passed the test.  Every brand of "flushable" product tested — cleansing wipes, baby wipes, and diaper liners included  — failed.

Another scientific study prepared for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said INDA, the wipes industry group, is using test methods that are "more lenient."

The bottom line for cities like Saint John is higher costs, often in the form of unscheduled overtime for crews to flush out backed-up sewer lines, sometimes in the middle of the night or on a weekend.

McGovern said the problem is putting a strain on budgets and putting both public and private property at risk.

About the Author

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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