In December, a federal court put on hold a Washington, D.C., city law regulating moist flushable toilet wipe labels, pending a trial. The legislation had passed the city council in December 2016 and was due to go into effect on New Years Day 2018. To many, both the law and the lawsuit to block its enforcement sounded like the kind of thing people make government jokes about. But to those of us concerned about science and health in public policy, the joke was on taxpayers, store owners and consumers in the nation’s capital.
The legislation would ban manufacturers from advertising these products as “flushable” and instead require labeling them “unflushable”.
But in early 2016, New York City conducted the definitive test of this idea. City-hired engineers set up screens at a wastewater treatment plant that processes effluent from Manhattan and the Bronx. They dried out and analyzed all materials the screens caught. About half was paper towels, newspaper and other trash that obviously should never be flushed. Most of the rest was a combination of labeled and advertised as non-flushable baby wipes, cosmetic and household wipes, tampons and other feminine hygiene products. Just 2 percent were fragmentary remnants of flushable wipes.
The Federal Trade Commission already knew that. The difference between flushable and non-flushable wipes is plastic threading used to hold together moistened sheets drenched in skin lotions, antiseptics, home cleaning chemicals and other liquids essential to their function. Plastic laced products do not come apart. Flushable wipes, which are required to be free of the lacing, do, a distinction lost on Washington’s officials.
So non-flushable wipes are not a concern and even flushable wipes aren’t the big factor in global sewage back ups. The biggest problem is cooking grease. According to the 2016 City of New York report, more than 70 percent of that municipality’s sewer back-ups were caused by cooking oil and grease. Nationally, others set that number at 47 percent. In Britain it is also 50 percent. Old pipes that were laid when the neighborhoods were less populated than today are part of the problem, too. Even worse is restaurants that don’t trap their grease located in neighborhoods with inadequate sewage piping.
According to a report from Thames Water, London’s local wastewater authority, 90 percent of eateries in London contribute to the sewer back-up problem by failing to install grease traps. The Guardian reports: “As a result, grease, oil and food scraps washed off plates, utensils and saucepans are finding their way into pipes and drains.”
The point is that Washington’s city government has ignored science to blame problems of inadequate infrastructure on an unrelated but easily disparaged consumer product.
It also has also ignored human health need. The world will not rise or fall on flushable wipes, but it turns out that they do represent an advance in human hygiene, particularly for one highly vulnerable part of our population — elderly women.
Urinary Tract Infection, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, incontinence and anxiety over it are all problems for elderly women to a degree that they are not for younger people or even for elderly men. And for those women, these conditions are not mere inconveniences. UTIs, for example, have been linked to exacerbation of symptoms of dementia. When the Washington, D.C., city council voted on the legislation, clearly the members knew little of the product they were attacking.
In the larger scheme of things, flushable wipes in Washington don’t make a lot of difference. But this kind of mindless attacking of a popular product is a drama played over and over in our nation’s politics. The same story element keeps returning, whether the facts fit the narrative or not. We all know those elements. We have heard them often enough: big corporation, bad; new technology, risky; consumer benefits, trivial; cost to public, not measureable, so presumably astronomical.
It is a scenario for national stagnation – economically, technologically, in human health and in something less tangible, human hope.
Hank Campbell is the president of the American Council on Science and Health, which has offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.