Opinion: Virus presents problem for wastewater systems

Nadine Leslie

Pandemics often come with unintended consequences, cloaked by the tragedy of lives lost and the heroic efforts of health care providers fighting to conquer the crisis. And so it is again as COVID-19 stalks our nation, inflicting pain and fear but also testing the very infrastructure that protects our society from other diseases. 

The wastewater treatment plants whose function is to protect cities and towns from water-borne illnesses are now being compromised by tens of thousands of latex gloves that are being flushed down residential toilets. These indestructible items are clogging the strainers, filters, pumps and pipes that make up municipal wastewater treatment facilities. If not retrieved by hard-pressed plant technicians, the debris can literally shut down sewer systems, creating a cascading series of health emergencies.

Adding to this growing crisis are the so called “flushable wipes” that are, in reality, a type of fabric paper that is anything but “flushable.” With the pandemic hoarding of such basic household items as toilet tissue, individuals have turned to these “flushable wipes” for personal hygiene, and these items are adding to the intractable clogs that threaten the viability of complicated wastewater treatment plants.

City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Wastewater Treatment Plant on Jefferson. The Great Lakes Water Authority, which provides water to 147 communities in the state, including Detroit and Flint, said in a statement that the GLWA “is committed to providing its member communities with water of exceptional quality” and meets or exceeds all federal and state drinking water requirements.

The significance of the threat is underscored when one considers the investment needed in these wastewater systems just to keep them current, much less in repair. The EPA projected in 2017, approximately $271 billion would be needed for this crucial infrastructure over the next 25 years.  In addition, the volume of wastewater that is annually treated is enormous, with estimates of 61 cubic kilometers in North America with one kilometer equaling 220 billion gallons. If a wastewater system fails, an incalculable amount of sewage has nowhere to go.

The sewer pipes that connect homes to community sewer systems are only designed to carry water, toilet paper, and human waste. This means clogs can occur between residential traps and the street sewer connection if these pipes are abused. The enormous pressure that builds up from that clog can burst pipes and lead to raw sewage within a home or apartment. The potential for fecal carried disease is that close and that real if individuals insist on flushing trash down the toilet.

To protect our communities from the threat of wastewater systems breaking down from tons of non-destructible products being flushed down the toilet, this issue needs to be understood and behavior altered. Much the way COVID-19 has created a collective awareness regarding the need to wash our hands for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizers, and wear gloves and masks when or where appropriate, we must follow protocols for how and what we put into our wastewater treatment systems or the next public health crisis will erupt literally beneath our feet.

Nadine Leslie is CEO of SUEZ North America which operates throughout North America, providing drinking water, wastewater and waste collection service to 6.7 million people daily; treating 560 million gallons of water, and over 440 million gallons of wastewater each day.