Millions of Americans sheltering in place at home combined with an acute shortage of toilet paper inventory in grocery stores and wholesale clubs across the country - even as manufacturers continue to insist that there's been no cutback in production - has created an unprecedented crisis for municipal and metropolitan sewer systems.
The New York Times reports that sewer officials around the country are pleading with residents not to flush baby wipes, tissue paper, and paper towels, even if the products purport to be "flushable".
These toilet paper-alternatives don't break up like toilet paper does, and thus they've contributed to unprecedented blockages around the country.
But with toilet paper still unavailable in stores around the country, and with store employees typically answering desperate shoppers' questions about when it might arrive with a shrug, it's unclear when the supply 'non-shortage' will clear up. Some industry executives said the shortages will end once shoppers stop hoarding, but they've been saying that for days.
Remember, kids: #WipesClogPipes.
Across the country - in Charleston, S.C.; northeastern Ohio; Lexington, Ky.; Austin, Texas; and Spokane, Wash. - wastewater treatment officials have beseeched residents not to flush wipes down the toilet using the hashtag #WipesClogPipes.
"Flushable wipes are not truly flushable,” said Jim Bunsey, chief operating officer of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. “They might go down the drain, but they do not break up like regular toilet paper."
The plumbing repair company Roto-Rooter issued a similar plea to its customers, and said that substituting facial tissue for toilet paper was “another bad idea,” unless it’s used in small amounts and flushed frequently.
The California State Water Resources Control Board warned this week that “even wipes labeled ‘flushable’ will clog pipes and interfere with sewage collection and treatment throughout the state."
"Flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets will clog sewers and cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities, creating an additional public health risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic," it said.
The agency said wastewater treatment plants across California were reporting problems.
Plumbers told the NYT that they were fielding an unprecedented number of calls, considering the level of national lockdown, as clogged toilets quickly escalated into a desperate situation for homeowners.
Plumbers said they were fielding an increase in calls from people working from home and self-quarantining.
"We have noticed an uptick in the amount of clogged main sewer lines and, when we dispatch our technicians, we are pulling baby wipes out of the line and we’re seeing paper towels and Lysol wipes," Mark Russo, vice president of Russo Brothers & Company, a plumbing and heating service in East Hanover, NJ, said on Saturday.
"These items are things that should never be flushed down the toilet," he said.
It's just one of the many unanticipated ancillary complications by the ructions in normal society caused by the world's first true pandemic in a century.