US officials are pleading with the public to be more conscious of what they flush down the toilet during this pandemic, with face masks, gloves and wipes building up into "fatbergs" that are clogging sewer systems nationwide.

Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney said at a recent press briefing that most of the 19 sewer and storm-water pumping stations in the city had been blocked up with medical items by the end of April.

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In Houston, Texas, sanitary sewage overflows increased by 33 per cent between February and March according to spokeswoman Erin Jones. She blamed this on clogs from rags, tissues, paper towels and wipes.


Shortages in toilet paper, particularly during the early days of the coronavirus epidemic, forced Americans to occasionally seek alternatives. This, combined with an increased effort to sanitise their homes, is what has caused the problems.

"When everyone rushed out to get toilet paper and there was none ... people were using whatever they could," said Pamela Mooring, spokeswoman for DC Water, the operator of the nation's capital's sewage system.

Officials are urging people to stop flushing medical items down the toilet. Photo / 123rf
Officials are urging people to stop flushing medical items down the toilet. Photo / 123rf

In California's Beale Air Force Base, soldiers normally tasked with airfield maintenance have been reassigned to pulling wipes out of the plumbing network.

In an article on the base's website, Master Sergeant Destrey Robbins said "Our airmen are working 16-plus hours to unclog the pipe systems and that takes them out of the mission and puts a strain on the rest of the team."

All of the extra waste making its way into America's sewage system could have a devastating effect on the environment. In an interview with the Associated Press, George Leonard, Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist, said he's concerned that discarded personal protective equipment could make its way out to sea, adding to "the plastics burden that the ocean is already suffering from".

But officials say that a fix for the problem is very simple: the only items that should be in the toilet are human waste and toilet paper.

This message does appear to be having an impact in some areas. Previously in El Paso, Texas, emergency maintenance teams were dispatched about seven times a day to clear pipes. Since a local media campaign began to alert people to the problem, they have only been called out once.