For a plumber who wants job security, one of the best inventions of the century might be the "flushable" wipe.
The pre-moistened wipes are advertised widely as safe for sewer lines and septic systems, and sold as an extra swipe of freshness for kids and adults alike. Trouble is, while the wipes can be flushed, they shouldn't be, according to local sanitary system officials, water quality experts and plumbers dealing with the consequences of consumers believing what they read about flushability: plugged sewage pipes and flooded basements.
Flushable wipes, in fact, account for about a third of the 10 to 20 daily service calls that Terry the Plumber -- a.k.a. 54-year-old Terry Mertz -- makes all over the North Hills. As for the idea that the wipes disintegrate after disappearing from view?
Not so much, Mr. Mertz said.
"It's a good product if you want to stop a bullet, but it's not a good product to throw down the drain," said Mr. Mertz, who said some compacted plugs can block up to 20 feet of sewage pipe and must be blasted away with a high-pressure "jetting" machine. "If you want to see me, keep using them."
Manufacturers insist that wipes labeled as flushable aren't the problem, pointing instead to baby and other cleaning wipes marked as nonflushable.
"My team regularly goes sewer diving" to analyze what's causing problem, said Trina McCormick, a senior manager at Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Cottonelle's flushable wipes. "We've seen the majority, 90 percent in fact, are items that are not supposed to be flushed, like paper towels, feminine products or baby wipes."
Sanitary experts, however, are quick to disagree, saying that although flushable wipes aren't the only problem, sanitary systems, especially aging, overburdened systems such as Pittsburgh's, were designed to pass along only human waste and a modest amount of toilet paper. Anything else -- even the facial tissue one might have just used to squash a stink bug -- should be thrown away in a waste can, said Melissa Rubin, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
Feminine products, cotton balls, dental floss, candy wrappers, cigarettes, baby wipes, "flushable cleansing cloths" and anything else that might reasonably considered to be garbage should be treated that way, experts said.
"The wipes are great to use, but put them in the trash can," said Ms. Rubin, whose authority owns and maintains most of the "main lines" running under the city's streets and connecting individual property owners' lateral lines to the huge pipes leading into the Alcosan sewage treatment plant. "Honestly, people shouldn't be using their toilets as a trash can -- it's not worth the risk for that little bit of convenience."
Ms. Rubin said the authority has had to replace some main lines in part because of clogs by flushable wipes, but that individual property owners, and especially schools and day care centers, bear the brunt of the problem. Families, she said, should talk about what's OK to flush and what's not; just because there hasn't been a problem yet at home doesn't mean kids and maybe even adults are sending the wrong material down the pipes, she said.
"It's a huge problem, and while the advertising and marketing for these products tells you it's flushable, that's absolutely incorrect," Ms. Rubin said. "They will clog your toilet and your sewers."
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents 300 wastewater agencies, says it has been hearing complaints about wipes from sewer systems big and small for about the past four years.
That roughly coincides with the ramped-up marketing of the "flushable cleansing cloths" as a cleaner, fresher option than dry toilet paper alone. A trade group says wipes, many of which are plastic, are a $6 billion-a-year industry, with sales of consumer wipes increasing nearly 5 percent a year since 2007 and expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent annually for the next five years.
The problem got worldwide attention in July, when London sewer officials reported removing a 15-ton "bus-sized lump" of wrongly flushed grease and wet wipes, dubbed the "fatberg."
In Vancouver, Wash., sewer officials say wipes labeled as flushable are a big part of a problem that has caused that city to spend more than $1 million in the past five years replacing three large sewage pumps and eight smaller ones that were routinely clogging.
To prove their point, they dyed several kinds of wipes and sent them through the sewer for a mile to see how they would break up. They didn't.
Those labeled flushable, engineer Frank Dick said, had "a little rips and tears but still they were intact."
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, has spent more than $1 million over five years installing heavy-duty grinders, while the Orange County, Calif., Sanitation District, in a single year recorded 971 "de-ragging" maintenance calls on 10 pump stations at a cost of $320,000.
Clogging problems in Waukesha, Wis., prompted the sewer authority there to create a "Keep Wipes out of Pipes" flier. And Ocean City, Md., and Sitka, Alaska, are among cities that have also publicly asked residents not to flush wipes, regardless of whether they are labeled flushable.
In Allegheny County, Alcosan doesn't have grinders, hasn't experienced wipe-related problems and hasn't specifically asked residents not to flush the wipes, said spokeswoman Nancy Barylak. It is, however, trying to educate consumers not to put anything but toilet paper into the system, and encouraging them to pick up the authority's free stencil kits to mark "dump no waste, drains to river" on local storm drains, she said.
Ms. Barylak said the biggest problem for the huge Alcosan pipes, which range in size from 36 inches to 10 feet in diameter, is cooking grease that builds up on the sides of the pipes, reducing capacity and increasing the likelihood of flooding during storms, she said. Leaves are bad, too, because they clog the pipes, causing flooding, and can wash into the rivers where their decomposition robs fish and other aquatic life of oxygen.
But in an overflow situation in which untreated sewage from the combined sewer system and storm drains runs into local waterways, flushable wipes certainly don't help, she said.
"Quite frankly, these wipes could end up in rivers, creeks and streams, which would not only be an eyesore but an environmental problem as well," Ms. Barylak said.
Correction, posted Sept. 24, 2013: The spelling of the last name of Terry Mertz has been corrected.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1719. The Associated Press contributed.