WASHINGTON -- Next time you go to toss that "flushable" wipe in the toilet, you might want to consider a request from your sewer utility: Don't.
Sewer agencies across the country say the rapidly growing use of pre-moistened "personal" wipes -- used most often by potty-training toddlers and people seeking what's advertised as a more "thorough" cleaning than toilet paper -- are clogging pipes and jamming pumps.
Utilities struggling with aging infrastructure have wrestled for years with the problem of "ragging" -- when baby wipes, dental floss, paper towels and other items not designed for flushing entangle sewer pumps.
The latest menace, officials say, is that wipes and other products, including pop-off scrubbers on toilet-cleaning wands, are increasingly being marketed as "flushable." Even ever-thickening, super-soft toilet paper is worrisome because it takes longer to disintegrate, some say.
"Just because you can flush it doesn't mean you should," said I.J. Hudson, a spokesman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which handles sewage for 1.8 million Maryland residents in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The result: Utility officials say crews needed for less preventable sewer maintenance and repairs are being deployed instead to patrol for wipes.
The WSSC has spent more than $1 million to install heavy-duty grinders to shred wipes and other debris before they reach pumps on the way to the treatment plant, Mr. Hudson said. Officials with the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority say that more than 500 man-hours have been devoted over the past 12 months to removing stuck wipes and repairing broken equipment.
The wipes also contribute to blockages that cause sewage to overflow into streams and back up into basements.
This summer, a 15-ton glob of wipes and hardened cooking grease the size of a bus -- and nicknamed "Fatberg" by the Brits -- was discovered in a London sewer pipe after residents complained of toilets that would not flush.
What constitutes "flushable" might soon get federal oversight. Officials of the wastewater industry and wipe manufacturers say the Federal Trade Commission recently asked for data as part of an investigation into the "flushable" label. A spokeswoman said the FTC does not confirm ongoing inquiries unless it takes action.