We seldom give any thought to what happens after we flush the toilet or pull the plug to let dishwater drain. Unless you’ve experienced a clogged toilet, had to have major plumbing repairs, or worse, gotten sick from swimming in contaminated water, sewage disposal is not a daily concern for most of us. By knowing a few important facts, we can keep it that way.
A surprising number of Americans get sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or somehow coming into contact with water they thought was safe. Human waste, household chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and a host of unsavory things get flushed into our sewer systems each day. Much of that waste material should never be put down the drain, as our treatment plants and drainage systems weren’t designed to handle them.
When certain items like wet wipes are flushed, they can block sewer pipes causing sewage to back up into our home, yard, or onto city streets. This contaminated sludge often makes its way into lakes, rivers, and streams where it can cause everything from ear infections or diarrhea, to hepatitis.
A variety of items can cause expensive damage to our plumbing and sewer mains. Cooking oil and grease are a leading cause of clogged pipes. When grease is poured down a drain, it sticks to the pipes. Even the hottest water will not flush it out completely, and not even a garbage disposal will break it up. There are other sources of grease and fat we don’t think about like butter, gravy, and the residue left on plates from a steak or pork chop. To safely dispose of fats or oils, let it cool then pour it into a disposable container that can be sealed and placed in a trash can. Wipe fatty residue from plates and pans with a paper towel before placing them in the sink or dishwasher. It is helpful to occasionally pour vinegar and baking soda down the drain followed by boiling water as it will help break up the grease and keep it from forming a solid plug. In the bath, avoid using products that contain oils for the same reason.
While it may seem like the safest choice, don’t flush old medicines down the toilet. Doing so pollutes the water and actually harms fish genetically along with other aquatic life, even at very low levels of contamination. It can also expose humans to the chemicals in medicines and have harmful consequences. A safer alternative is to mix unused drugs with coffee grounds or kitty litter, place them in a sealed container, then deposit them in the trash. Even these can eventually leak into a water source from a landfill. The best way to dispose of old medicines is to contact our local law enforcement and ask about their community take back program.
Items that should never be flushed include needles, bandages, paper towels, facial tissues, rags, feminine products, condoms, diapers, cigarette butts, kitty litter, cotton balls or swabs, hair, dental floss, or teeth whiteners. The sewer line leading from your house to the city’s main sewer line averages four to six inches in diameter and can quickly become impassable. Even flushable wipes are not safe to flush.
If you have a septic system, the same rules apply. Flushing chemicals or medicines of any kind into a septic system can poison it, threaten the water supply of the entire neighborhood, and drain into nearby lakes and streams. A good rule of thumb is to think before you flush.