MONROE — People swept shelves of disinfectant wipes and toilet paper as the COVID-19 outbreak spread.
When those ran out, they reached for other sanitary wipes, napkins and paper towels.
“Unfortunately, manufacturers continue to label personal wipes as ‘flushable,’ which just is not true,” Monroe water and sewer operations manager John Lande said in an email. “Educating people of their impact is the only real tool in solving this problem.”
Once down the drain, cotton swabs, dental floss, disinfectant and sanitary wipes, napkins and paper towels gum up sewer lines and wastewater facilities. In past years, cities changed some equipment to screen and grind the materials. Monroe updated some pumping stations and its wastewater treatment plant to handle and remove or shred what comes through the line.
Usually, a Monroe Public Works crew clears blockages at the plants three or five times a year. They’ve cleaned fouled pumps at pump stations three times the past week.
Workers removed “wads” of personal wipes that required the pumps to be taken out of service, disassembled and cleaned.
The Lake Stevens Sewer District, which serves nearly 13,000 hookups, reported similar problems, district general manager Tonya Christoffersen said in an email.
Wipes collected through its system filled a 1.5-cubic-foot bin over a five-hour period Tuesday.
“We have seen more binding up in our lift station pumps, which does slow down or stop the process of managing wastewater flow,” Christoffersen said. “We are also seeing more dental floss, and while your dentist appreciates you flossing, please don’t flush it.”
Marysville, with about 18,000 sewer hookups, also saw an uptick in wastewater system problems recently, city spokesperson Connie Mennie said.
“It’s not about whether it can be flushed; it’s about whether it can be treated well,” she said.
Everett, which has the most sewer connections in the county at 24,250, didn’t see a notable change in maintenance for its lines. Neither had Bothell, Edmonds, Granite Falls, Lynnwood or Snohomish.
But Bothell had one sewer backup problem recently in which crews found a clog of napkins and paper towels, assistant to the city manager Becky Range said. The city took to social media to warn people against flushing anything other than the “three P’s” of pee, poop and toilet paper. On Facebook, Bothell posted a reminder March 13 and followed with another March 23 after the backup.
Gov. Jay Inslee last week ordered people to stay home for two weeks unless deemed an essential worker. More people are falling ill to the disease, which could lead to even more use of napkins, paper towels and wipes.
“What I want people to know are two things,” Lake Stevens Sewer District general manager Christoffersen said. “Back-ups happen in your home — not just our pipes, and what you put in the water (toilet or drain), ends up in the waterways that we fish in, swim or boat in.”