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Panic over the coronavirus pandemic could end up causing problems in the country's sewage system, with officials worrying that a shortage of toilet paper in some homes could end up literally sending shit onto the streets.
With shelves cleared of toilet paper in stores nationwide, sanitation officials told BuzzFeed News they worry people will resort to using alternatives like wipes or napkins, then flush them down the toilet.
The problem is only toilet paper should be flushed, and anything else could end up clogging up sewage pipes and sending sewage to seep onto the streets.
"People might be using paper towels and cloths," Theodore Higgins, chief environmental compliance inspector for Los Angeles Sanitation & Environment, told BuzzFeed News. "It would not only cause disruption in your property, but in our [city] system."
Over the weekend, Tony Rubio, district manager for Sanitary District No. 5 of California's Marin County, told BuzzFeed News his agency responded to two water sewage system overflows. Both were caused by wet wipes being flushed down the toilet.
The overflows were considered minor, he said, but it did raise concerns that people could be flushing other material as they have a hard time finding toilet paper in stores.
"We just wanted to remind folks to just flush toilet paper and toss the disinfectant wipes," he said. "If you have to use the other stuff, bag it up and throw it in the trash."
Other agencies across the country have been reaching out to the public through social media, asking people not to flush wipes and alternatives — and even showing pictures of clogged pipes to illustrate the impact it could have.
"We understand due to high demand toilet paper might not be available," the Needham Department of Public Works posted on its Twitter account. "Please do not flush wipes, even if they say they are flushable, they are not."
Los Angeles has not had a problem as of yet in its 6,700 miles of sewage lines, Higgins said, but the agency is trying to be proactive by spreading the warning online.
"We're using social media to get the word out," Higgins said.
Other agencies reminded people of the same thing, telling them only the "3 P's" can go down the john — pee, poop, and paper.
Part of the problem, officials said, is that some disinfectant wipes claim to be flushable on their packaging, but that's not accurate.
"WARNING! Disinfectant Wipes are not Flushable," the Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District in California posted on its homepage. "Regardless of the labeling, the only paper product that can be flushed down a toilet is toilet paper."
Even other paper products, like napkins or paper towels, Higgins said, can cause issues because they are thicker and do not dissolve at the same rate as toilet paper.
The Massachusetts Water Resource Authority issued the same warning last week, sending out a press release because of the chances people might be using alternatives during the coronavirus outbreak.
"If you are using any type of wipe (whether or not it says "flushable") please do not flush them down the toilet," the district said.