Despite coast-to-coast talk about potholed roads, collapsing bridges and an antiquated air traffic control system, one infrastructure problem remains a puzzle — well-publicized backups in some municipal sewer systems around the nation, and charges that the cause is a recently popular personal hygiene product: moist flushable wipes.
To many municipal sewer managers, flushable wipes are a frivolous private luxury that generates serious public maintenance bills. But those who rely on them – including mothers and caregivers like myself — don't see it that way. Effectively banning sewer-compatible wipes by banning the "flushable" label (as the D.C. City Council has done and other city councils and state legislatures may yet do) is the wrong solution to the wrong problem.
We who have cared for the very young and very old have long understood the not-so-frivolous utility of flushable wipes for these vulnerable loved ones. We nod when we hear doctors praising their role in maintaining the health and dignity of movement-constrained patients.
For example, Detroit-area OB-GYN Dr. Jonathan Zaidan recently told a local reporter that these products can be far from trivial conveniences. "[F]or an older woman, for instance," he said, "you probably don't realize how difficult something can be until your mobility is compromised, and that convenience is actually a big deal." He added that flushable wipes can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, among other conditions, for seniors who may be unable to be thorough with traditional cleaning methods.
He isn't alone in this view. Dr. A. Nicky Hjort — an OB-GYN from Carmel, Calif. — advocates using wet wipes, in addition to staying hydrated, to safeguard women's health and prevent UTIs. Vulnerability to UTIs is a big deal for women, who suffer the condition four times more frequently than men. It is often forgotten that it is of particular concern to elderly women. UTIs exacerbate the symptoms of dementia and may even bring on the condition in some women.
Irritable bowel syndrome is another condition that, according to the National Institutes of Health, is "under-recognized" in care for the elderly, particularly elderly women, whom it afflicts twice as often as men. Dr. Joel Krachman, Chief of Gastroenterology for AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Somers Point, N.J., recommends that IBS sufferers use wet wipes when frequent and vigorous cleaning causes irritation, making an already delicate problem worse.
Meanwhile, British psychologist Dr. Megan Arroll has emphasized the psychological impact on IBS patients who are anxious about being caught unprepared in public. She advocates carrying an "emergency pack" with medication, a change of undergarments, and flushable wet wipes to help feel secure.
The point is that, for certain groups, elderly women in particular, flushable wipes are not a luxury or an indulgence but a necessary tool for fostering independence, improving hygiene, and preserving dignity.
But what about all those sewer backups? Last year, the City of New York commissioned a study of materials caught by special screens in sewer lines entering one of the city's treatment plants. Flushable wipes made up less than two percent of what they found, and they were largely decomposed.
The other 98 percent was mostly intact plastic-laced baby wipes and other explicitly non-flushable wipes, as well as paper towels and trash, all items that should never be introduced into sewers from homes. Managers of the most up-to-date sewage systems have understood the need to adjust to modern habits and have installed massive grinders to deal with them.
But clogging in the nation's sewer systems is not just from what goes down a family's pipes. The people of my community — Queens, New York — come from 120 countries, each with its own culinary traditions, many of which rely heavily on cooking oils. As one local newspaper reported not long ago, in parts of the community discarded cooking oil "is the culprit in nearly 80 percent of all sewer backups," particularly in neighborhoods with large numbers of restaurants and narrow piping that became antiquated decades ago.
Hounding an innovative product from store shelves will not solve a problem that is being caused by other products and by badly outdated infrastructure. No one will win in a ban on flushable wipes, because the real problems will go entirely unaddressed.
But some will clearly lose, mostly women and especially elderly women. Municipal leaders around the nation need to understand that the ban on flushable wipe labeling is not an infrastructure issue. It is a women's health issue.
Elizabeth Samson is an attorney, real estate developer, and mother living in New York.
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