Wet Wipes: Biggest Stealth Health Threat of 2015

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November 02, 2016 | 109,300 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Wet wipes, brand name “Wet Ones,” became commonplace in baby care in the early 1970s but grew into an industry that now serves children, adults and housekeeping duties
  • Although advertised as flushable, they are not biodegradable and are clogging sewer systems around the world, causing millions of dollars in damage
  • Toilet paper is not the alternative you might think; a bidet gives you the fresh clean feeling without the negative environmental impact and can be very cost effective

By Dr. Mercola

How you clean your toosh has become a matter of media attention in the past several years as the move toward using wet wipes has created sewer monsters costing some cities millions of dollars to repair.

The demand for wet wipes began in the early 1970s when the industry expanded the single-packed, alcohol-soaked wet towelette product your mom or grandma may have carried in her purse in the ‘50s and ‘60s, into a line of wet wipes for baby’s bottoms (patented in 1972 with the brand name “Wet Ones”).

Demand for these disposable towels increased in the 1990s when they were promoted for adult hygiene, dusting, make-up removal and more.

With an infusion of aloe and fragrance, some people have made a complete switch from toilet paper to wet wipes. Wipes sold for cleaning your nether region are often advertised as biodegradable and flushable, making them all the more convenient to use on the toilet.

However, the congealed lumps of fat-soaked sanitary items known as “fatbergs” being pulled from residential and city sewer lines make it clear these bits of material are not degrading after flushing.

Flushable Does Not Mean Biodegradable

In this short news report you’ll discover the cost of flushing wet wipes for one small county. Multiply the cost for every county across the U.S. and you’ll realize how dramatic this issue has become. 

Wet wipes are classified as nonwoven material1 and often made from a combination of wood pulp, polyester, viscose and/or cotton. The raw materials are tangled under high pressure water, heat or air and then saturated with a combination of chemicals to clean, moisturize, scent and ultimately seal the product.2

It is the tangling process that makes the product more difficult to degrade as it enters the sewer system. Many of the wet wipes also contain flexible plastics that are not biodegradable.

The advertised flushable wipe moves out of your toilet, through your sewer and into the city sewer system. One of the key tests to marketing a wipe as “flushable” is that at least 25 percent of the wipe will break into smaller pieces within three hours while being agitated in water.3

But city officials in the District of Columbia, just one of the many cities having sewer problems from wipes, say that the wipe can reach a pump within just a couple of minutes, not three hours.

In addition, most sewers are primarily using gravity, so the wipes are not being agitated within the sewer as they are in the test.4

Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Carter Strickland, told New York Magazine that wet wipes were costing the city millions of dollars, not including broken equipment and staff overtime. An office aide estimated that cost to be close to an additional $18 million per year.5 

Instead of acknowledging sewer and environment issues, the industry sees a number of opportunities for growth in affluent countries through introducing innovative product lines, giving customers more choices.6

Baby wipes were only the beginning of the nonwoven market, and now the industry has its sights set on a more lucrative and evergreen adult market.

Homes Flooding and Sewers Backing Up

Wet wipe sales have nearly tripled in the past decade,7 and sales are not slowing down. Estimates are that sales will reach $2.9 billion by 2018.8 This increases the potential risk to homeowners and city sewer systems for damage and flooding.

In 2013 an enormous 15-ton glob of congealed fats and wipes the size of a city bus damaged sewer pipes in London.9

It took sewer workers three weeks to clear the area and prevent massive flooding. Officials said they were clearing nearly 40,000 blockages a year caused by fat and sanitary wipes.10 Gordon Hailwood, team leader of the sewer crew who cleared this fatberg, said:11

"The sewer was almost completely clogged. If we hadn't discovered it in time, raw sewage could have started spurting out of manholes across the whole of Kingston. It was so big it damaged the sewer and repairs will take up to six weeks."

Problems such as this are happening across the U.S. as well, and cities are beginning to take action. In an attempt to reduce the damage to their pipes, Beloit, Wisconsin, began a “No Wipes Down the Pipes” campaign, citing damage to their sewers and other municipalities across the nation.12

Wyoming, Minnesota, filed a class action suit against Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly Clark and four other manufacturers, claiming fraudulent promotion resulted in damage to the city sewers.13 The companies countered by asking the city to save 180 days of clogged sewage as evidence.

The judge ruled the city could video tape and photograph the evidence and then dispose of it after seven days.

Sewage authorities across the country are frustrated with the standard set for flushable wipes. In a test conducted in 2013, none of the four leading wipes passed the agitation test set by the industry to determine flushability of the product.14

Damage to the Ecosystem

The damage also extends to the environment. Wipes don’t appear to be degraded or sifted from sewage before they may make their way onto the beaches of the U.K.15 The number of wipes found on beaches more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.

The increase found on the beaches may have resulted when sewers, choked with debris, flooded more rubbish into rivers that later ended up on the beaches. Charlotte Coombes, conservation officer with the Marine Conservation Society, said:16

“This move towards convenience, the move towards items to use once and throw away, it’s much easier for people to do that. What we are doing is not just using a lot more resources, we are creating a lot more litter that can end up in the environment.”

Although notorious for the impact wipes are having in the sewer systems, the damage they are causing the environment is also of concern.17

For example, with plastics, turtles and other marine life often mistake plastic bags for jelly fish. Once the plastic is in their digestive tract it doesn’t move and the animal dies of starvation. Wipes have a similar effect.

Blockages also affect the environment when they cause overflow of raw sewage into rivers. Coombes went on to say:

“Our sewerage systems weren’t built to cope with wet wipes. When flushed, they don’t disintegrate like toilet paper, and they typically contain plastic so once they reach the sea, they last for a very long time.”

Wipes Filled With Chemicals and Fragrances

You may have found the fragrance and feel of wet wipes attractive, but beware they are infused with chemicals and fragrances that may damage your skin and negatively impact your health.

Wipes are marketed to both clean and sanitize. However, the chemicals employed by the manufacturer may cause skin irritation and damage, as experienced by a postman in 2013. Unable to walk for two months, his condition didn’t clear until he stopped using wet wipes.18

Unfortunately, people who experience irritation around their anus continue to use wipes under the mistaken idea they will help to clear the condition. Dr. Erin Warshaw, allergy expert at the University of Minnesota commented, ". . . wet wipes are a common cause of allergy. The allergens are almost always preservatives."

Toilet Paper May Not Be the Answer

Wet wipes were labeled the “the biggest villain of 2015” by The Guardian for the environmental and sewer problems they cause across the world.19 However, toilet paper may not be the answer. While the paper does disintegrate easily and quickly once it’s flushed, the environmental impact of production may leave an indelible and damaging imprint.

In the search for soft, fluffy paper, manufacturers have harvested millions of trees from Latin American countries and North America.20 Although toilet paper can be readily manufactured from recycled paper, it’s the paper made from free standing trees that’s the softest on your bottom.

The U.S. market demands soft toilet paper, called the Charmin Effect, while European markets find a rough paper sufficient. In the U.S., recycled fiber accounts for only 2 percent of toilet paper sales, but 20 percent of sales in the European markets.21

The environmental cost is greater than the loss of trees. Initial use of a tree requires more water, more waste production and a greater use of chlorine-based bleach to whiten the product. This leads to the creation of cancer-causing chemicals like dioxins and furans, which not only enter the air but also waterways, soil and the food chain.

Exposure to even low levels of dioxins has been linked to hormone alterations, immune system impairments, reduced fertility, birth defects and other reproductive problems. If every American household replaced even one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper with one made from 100 percent recycled fibers, 423,900 trees would be saved.22

However, even toilet paper that comes from specially planted tree plantations is not a sustainable choice, as these single-species plantations cannot compare with the species-rich forests that have formed a natural habitat for centuries.

Your Ideal Replacement Is Affordable, Environmentally Friendly and Easy to Install

If you like the idea of wet wipes but not the idea of causing environmental problems and damage to wastewater treatment facilities, the bidet is an excellent alternative. For those who aren’t familiar with how they work, a bidet looks similar to a toilet but it is designed to help you freshen up after toilet use. Most modern bidets have one or more jets that spray water, allowing you to straddle the device for a cleansing far superior to toilet paper.

There are many reasons I prefer using a bidet to toilet paper, and I’m far from the only one. Bidets are commonly used in most European countries. It’s as refreshing as a wet wipe and gentler than paper. It practically eliminates the potential for fecal contamination of your hands and is more effective than toilet paper, while reducing pollution.

Although you could spend a couple thousand dollars to have a free standing bidet installed at home, there are also bidet seats which are placed on top of a regular toilet seat and are much less costly. They are growing in popularity in North America, according to Kohler, the largest manufacturer of bidets in the U.S.23

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1, 6 Nonwovens Industry, January 2012, Wipes: What, Where, Why and How?
  • 2 Independent, March 2015 Soaring Sales of Wet Wipes Have Contributed to Increase of Debris on Beaches and "Fatbergs"
  • 3, 4 CityLab, October 2013, People Who Flush Personal Wipes Down the Drain Are Destroying America's Sewers
  • 5, 7 New York Magazine, October 2013, Public Enemy No. 2.
  • 8 Freedonia Group, Wipes - Demand and Sales Forecasts, Market Share, Market Size, Market Leaders
  • 9 Huffington Post, April 2015, 11-Ton ‘Fatberg’ Made Of Wet Wipes And Fat Breaks London Sewer
  • 10, 11 The Guardian, August 2013, Fatberg ahead! How London was saved from a 15-tonne ball of grease
  • 12 Beloit Wisconsin, No Wipes Down the Pipes
  • 13 The Atlantic, October 2016, Are Wet Wipes Wrecking the World's Sewers?
  • 14 Consumer Reports, December 2013, Think twice about flushing wet wipes
  • 15, 16, 17 The Guardian, March 2015, Wet wipes found on British beaches up more than 50% in 2014
  • 18 Reuters, June 2010 Wet wipes may cause rashes
  • 19 The Guardian, June 2015, Wet wipes: the biggest villain of 2015
  • 20, 21 New York Times, February 2009, Mr. Whipple Left it out: Soft is Rough on Forests
  • 22 Natural Resources Defence Council, Recycling: Beyond the Bin
  • 23 New York Times, March 2012, Begin the Bidet