New Brunswick

Sewage spill caused by flood a reminder of what not to flush

High water overwhelmed Fredericton's sewer system, causing manholes in some low-lying neighbourhoods to overflow and spill onto the streets and people's property.

Wipes, hair, floss and condoms shouldn't be flushed down the toilet, city says

Feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons are among some of the most common items improperly disposed of in toilets. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Floodwaters in Fredericton are finally receding, but they're leaving behind traces of some of the strange things people flush down the toilet.

High water overwhelmed Fredericton's sewer system, causing manholes in some low-lying neighbourhoods to overflow and spill onto the streets and people's property.

Neil Thomas, a water and sewer engineer for the city, hopes that what the flood leaves behind will open people's eyes to what should and shouldn't go down the toilet.

"People mistakenly treat the toilet as a garbage can," he said. "The toilet is designed to take human waste and toilet paper and that's it. Nothing else."

'Flushable' wipes and kitty litter

One of the biggest culprits among the unflushables is the disposable wipe — no matter what some packages say.

Wipes are designed to be durable, which can cause damage when they get wrapped around pumps or get hung up on the system and cause a clog, Thomas said.

"We have literally taken tons of wipes and miscellaneous garbage out of that treatment facility."

Many brands are marketed as "flushable," which causes consumer confusion, Thomas said.

A recent report from Ryerson University for the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group of Canada found that no single wipe, labelled flushable or not, was able to safely disintegrate through a sewer system test.

"Manufacturers can make marketing claims that don't necessarily have to be proven by independent third-party standards," Thomas said.

This pile of wipes and other debris clogged and stopped a pump at one of Fredericton's sewage lift stations. (Submitted by Neil Thomas)

Cat litter is another product that's often labelled "flushable" when it really isn't.

Thomas said the city is one of many groups that have filed a complaint through the Municipal Enforcement Sewer Use Group to the federal Competition Bureau that labelling these products as flushable should not be allowed.

Hair and floss

While a few strands of hair or floss may seem inconsequential, neither dissolves in water.

Thomas said hair and floss can work together with wipes to create traps for other debris.

Feminine hygiene products

Tampons, pads and plastic applicators are all commonly flushed down the toilet, but there's good reason they shouldn't be. 

Tampons and pads are designed to be absorbent, which means they can enlarge once in the sewer system and cause clogs.

And plastic applicators don't dissolve in water. 

Food, wrappers and other garbage

Neil Thomas, a water and sewage engineer with the City of Fredericton, said marketing products such as wipes as 'flushable' creates consumer confusion. Wipes aren't flushable. (Submitted by Neil Thomas)

People commonly flush food down the toilet thinking it's not a big deal, but undigested food doesn't break down the same way in a sewer system and can cause clogs.

Food wrappers also get flushed, Thomas said. He's seen granola bar wrappers get stuck in the system before.

"A lot of people abuse the toilet, thinking it magically disappears and goes away. Well, it doesn't."

Some of the strangest things Thomas has seen flushed down a toilet?

"We have found hats, T-shirts, false teeth, anything that's small that will go through the toilet," he said.

"And I think a glass eyeball once. That one was probably an accident."