By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
Jay Leno once quipped, “If you don’t want your dog to have bad breath, do what I do: Pour a little Lavoris in the toilet.”
Considering whether or not mouthwash is a good choice – either for the dog or the plumbing – might be worth a laugh. But seriously, homeowners sometimes flush common household items, which experts and officials warn can cause real problems.
Brian King, co-owner of The Plumber Guy in Surprise, said such mistakes can be costly.
“The main thing to remember is nothing other than normal human waste and toilet paper should be flushed. Anything else can lead to trouble,” said Mr. King. “What causes most issues and backups is there’s something down the sewer line causing a clog.”
When a professional is needed, a simple clog can sometimes be unstuck for as little as $100. But bigger problems, such as larger obstructions in the sewer line, could cost a homeowner thousands of dollars to repair, he said.
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies has represented public wastewater and stormwater agencies across the country for more than four decades. They say improper household toilet use can lead to even greater problems downstream.
“Products such as wipes, paper towels and feminine hygiene products should not be flushed, but often are, causing problems for utilities that amount to billions of dollars in maintenance and repair costs – costs which ultimately pass on to the consumer. Other consumer products contain ingredients, which may harm water quality and the environment,” according information at the NACWA website, www.nacwa.org.
The association announced plans to launch another website dedicated to the issue as part of their ongoing “Toilets are not Trashcans” campaign.
Closer to home, Margaret Perez works for the city of Surprise Water Resource Management Department and offered a list of things people should never flush down their toilets or pour down household drains.
Persistent paper products
Topping the list, feminine hygiene products – despite claims printed on many paper product packages – are not safe to flush because they do not break down and can clog pipes, Ms. Perez explained by email.
“Tampons and other feminine hygiene products are not supposed to be flushed down the toilet,” Ms. Perez stated. “To properly dispose of personal items, wrap them in toilet paper and throw them in the trash can.”
Among other often-flushed products are baby wipes. Like feminine products, packages of hand wipes often clearly claim they are safe to flush, but officials still urge caution.
“These ‘adult baby wipes’ are becoming increasingly popular nowadays,” Ms. Perez stated. “They are also increasingly causing clogs and backups in sewage pipes across the country.
Although some of these brands might say they are flushable on the box, there are groups that are revising the guidelines.”
She suggested new industry guidelines may lead to a prominent “Do not flush” label on many future products. A simple solution is to keep a trash can nearby to get rid of anything questionable.
“If you must use these, throw them away in the trash can,” Ms. Perez stated. “Keep one close to the toilet. Flushing wet wipes can easily turn into an expensive mistake when you have to call a plumber to snake your toilet.”
Cotton balls and swabs may seem safe, too, since cotton is used in toilet paper as well. But balls and swabs can clump together and create blockages. Cotton-tipped cigarette butts can cause gum up the works, too. And paper towels, though they look like toilet paper, are manufactured to hold together.
Likewise, diapers seem deceptively disposable but are especially troublesome, Ms. Perez suggested.
“Just because there is human waste inside them does not mean they are OK to flush,” she explained. “Diapers are made to expand in water. In the unlikely case you actually get the diaper to flush, it will likely get caught in the U-bend of the pipe. Dispose of all of these items in the trash can.”
Grease, hair and chemicals
Another seemingly benign culprit is cooking oil and accumulated food grease, which may readily disappear down kitchen drains and bathroom toilets. But once out of sight can wreak havoc on household plumbing and municipal sewer systems alike, Ms. Perez explained.
“Grease should never be poured down any drain,” Ms. Perez stated. “It may look like a liquid that can easily be dumped down a drain. But when it cools, it will thicken and clog up your pipes. Collect your grease in a glass jar and throw it in the trash can.”
Human hair, once flushed, can create problems, too. Surprisingly resilient and strong, strands of hair can complicate proper functioning of pipes at home and downstream, because they will not break down over time.
“Those big clumps of hair on your brush belong in the waste receptacle, not the toilet,” Ms. Perez stated. “Another non-dissolver, hair is quick to catch on any projections inside pipes. Those stringy pieces then snag other bits of waste, leading to formidable clogs.”
Excess household chemicals may pour easily enough, but anything poisonous or caustic – even household cleaning products – should be disposed of properly and kept out of the water supply, according to Jeff Powell, a foreman for general contractor Resco Group.
“As for homeowners, they’re not going to notice it, they don’t think they’re hurting anything. They think it’s cool that its going away, but it causes a lot of problems later,” Mr. Powell explained. “Chemicals and hazardous waste wind up at the wastewater treatment plant and can damage equipment and be costly to repair.”
Fortunately, Surprise – like many cities – offers drop-off locations and collection events to dispose of old medicine and household chemicals.
To get rid of stored chemicals and other hazardous household items, the city also offers a twice-yearly event to help residents. The next such event will be hosted 8 a.m. Saturday, April 14 at the Public Works Maintenance Yard, 13433 W. Foxfire Drive.
Items such as old paint, chemicals, car batteries, cleaners, car tires and appliances will be collected free of charge. Proof of residence is required and the city will host a second take-back in October.
Pills and prescriptions
Leftover or outdated prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications often get flushed by well-meaning residents, who want to keep their homes safe.
Though some agencies have advocated for flushing medications to prevent accidental ingestion or drug abuse, wastewater treatment plants may not be able to fully cleanse the water supply of trace elements of their active ingredients.
“You may think it is a good idea to put pills out of harm’s way, but you are probably doing more harm than good by flushing them,” Ms. Perez stated. “They have toxic effects on groundwater supplies and wildlife. To get rid of old medicines, bring them to DEA-sponsored collection sites.”
To make it easy, the Surprise Police Department offers a free prescription drop-off box, which is open 24 hours-a-day in the lobby at the Surprise Public Safety Building, 14250 W. Statler Plaza. The police will also host a Shred-a-Thon and drug take-back event 7-10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13 at the same location.
Residents are invited to bring up to three banker’s boxes or 13-gallon trash bags of documents per vehicle, which will be shredded on-site and disposed of.
Unused and expired drugs may also be dropped off for proper disposal at no cost, thanks to event sponsors, including the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and Iron Mountain Incorporated, according to a Police Department press release.
Police spokesman Sergeant Tim Klarkowski encouraged residents to take advantage of the free event to keep their homes and community safe.
“Nationwide, identity theft and substance abuse are major concerns,” Mr. Klarkowski stated by email. “Events like the Shred-A-Thon are an opportunity to proactively combat both of these issues. Shredding old documents is a great way to help protect oneself from identity theft; getting rid of unused medications helps to keep these drugs out of the hands of teens or others who may abuse them.”