Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly’s water systems are being clogged by ‘fatbergs’ of PPE

Mayor Kenney: Don’t throw your gloves and wipes in the toilet!

Twitter / Philadelphia Water

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With hundreds of thousands of residents holed up at home, Philadelphia’s water infrastructure is being pushed to its limit — but not by the usual waste that clogs the city’s roughly three thousand mile network of buried pipes.

It’s the PPE, or personal protective gear, that everyone’s been flushing down the toilet. And tossing on the ground. And into the sewer inlets.

Knock it off, the city says.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney admonished residents on Tuesday for all the masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes that have ended up in the city’s sewers. So far 19 of Philly’s pumping stations have been “impacted” by PPE waste, he added, claiming the surge could create public health problems for the city that would outlast the pandemic.

“Please do not flush any of these items down the toilet,” Kenney said. “These items should go into a wastebasket.”

Officials issued a warning about the dangers of wipe-flushing more two weeks ago. Now, the Philadelphia Water Department is seeing 12 times more clogging than normal at its processing facilities: 100 lbs a month of waste, versus 100 lbs a year, per the mayor.

“This is taking a toll on our water treatment infrastructure and residents own private property,” Kenney said.

Philly isn’t the only town clogging its pipes with PPE. New York residents are also flushing plastic gloves, disinfectant wipes — and even socks and T-shirts, Newsday reported. These non-flushable materials bind together in the water pipes and arrive at processing plants as large balls of gunk, called “fatbergs” in the industry.

Capable of decimating sewers and closing long stretches of roadway, the Water Department says fatbergs are “a significant expense and headache for cities across the globe.” They routinely make the headlines, like this 130-ton behemoth that grew in London’s waterways.

Kenney noted the PPE problem also increases the risk of water main breaks, which drain the city’s water reserves and reduce pressure in areas (goodbye, long showers).

Once again, with emphasis, he asked people not to flush this stuff down the drain.

Said Kenney: “That was an odd conversation, but we had to have it.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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