Jeff Taylor said he has learned a few things since widespread panic ensued amid the coronavirus outbreak, perhaps most importantly that there is no substitute for toilet paper.

Now the San Clemente resident of 15 years is spending $11,200 to replace the sewer pipe running beneath his house on Calle Mendoza, nestled in the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, to the city connection in the street.

Like many people across Southern California and the nation, Taylor was a victim of the scarcity of toilet paper in the aftermath of coronavirus-related panic buying. So he turned to an alternative — baby wipes — to clean his bottom. Other popular substitutes have been paper towels, napkins and feminine hygiene products.

“You gotta keep yourself clean. I didn’t know what else to do,” said Taylor, 67. “I was thinking about newspaper. The wipes weren’t all that large. A couple of passes with one of those and you feel clean and good.”

Other residents across Southern California have made the same mistake, generating hundreds of calls to plumbers for service and prompting public wastewater officials to warn people to quit flushing substitutes for toilet paper..

“Please remember: Toilets are not trash cans,” said a recent joint public service announcement by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts and Metropolitan Water District  of Southern California. “Only the three Ps — pee, poo and (toilet) paper — belong in the toilet.”

The problem is nationwide. The New York Times reported that in Charleston, South Carolina; northeastern Ohio; Lexington, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and Spokane, Washington, wastewater treatment officials have urged residents not to flush wipes down the toilet using the hashtag #WipesClogPipes.

In search of TP

But, like many people, it wasn’t as if Taylor didn’t put as much effort as possible into finding toilet paper. After several attempts at purchasing it from Ralphs Fresh Fare, his usual shopping spot for groceries and household necessities, Taylor went to the most reliable source he could think of: Amazon.

“The toilet paper and paper towels I ordered on Amazon still haven’t arrived, and I ordered them almost a month ago,” he said Friday.

He then went to the online auction site eBay, which proved even more futile. He found a four-pack of Charmin being auctioned off with a starting bid of $200.

“I actually emailed the person selling it and said, ‘If this is real, God has a special place in hell for you,’ ” said Taylor, a semi-retired real estate agent.

Plumbers on a roll

Orange County plumbers Frank Vega and Derek Mallet spent all day Thursday and Friday at Taylor’s home replacing his sewer main.

Vega said Taylor called their employer, Barker and Sons Plumbing & Rooter in Anaheim, with a report that none of the toilets in his 57-year-old single-story home was working properly and appeared clogged.

“We came out and ran our camera through the cast iron pipe and found baby wipes in there,”  Vega said Friday. The pipe was also rusty and decrepit, so Taylor told them to just replace the whole thing.

Vega said he has been responding to similar calls across Orange County over the past two weeks, including Anaheim, Orange, Yorba Linda, Mission Viejo, Aliso Viejo, and Costa Mesa, among others.

“Before the virus, our average calls a day, for clogs, were probably four a day, and now we’re doing 10 to 13 calls a day,” Vega said.

“This has been an ongoing thing,” said Mike Barker, owner and president of Barker and Sons. He said whenever baby wipes, paper towels and other nonbiodegradable materials are continually flushed down the toilet, it usually spells trouble.

“When they get into the drain system, it’s going to cause a problem most of the time,” Barker said.

Vega said that out of the last 10 calls he’s responded to related to clogged toilets and sewer mains, seven of them were due to baby wipes, and the others were attributed to the flushing of feminine hygiene products. “We even pulled out underwear in one,” he said.

Sean Kurdoglu, general manager of Roto Rooter’s Inland Empire office in Rancho Cucamonga, said calls for service attributed to clogged pipes have increased about 10 percent in the past two weeks in the Inland Empire alone, with calls for service in Fontana, Ontario, San Bernardino, Rialto and Riverside, among others.

Other Southern California cities that have seen a sharp increase in calls for service include Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim, West Covina, Covina, Downey, and Cerritos, Kurdoglu said. In Redding, California, someone used a shredded T-shirt as a substitute for TP.

“We have yet to see any major issues in the Southern California market as far as city sewer mains being backed up, but we are seeing more issues with residential mains,” Kurdoglu said.

Public agencies impacted

The problem has forced public water officials to issue public service announcements cautioning people about the problems caused by flushing nonbiodegradable products down the toilet.

Aaron Kraft, general manager of Rialto Water Services, which is operated by Veolia North America, a transnational company that does water and wastewater management, said the agency’s 100,000 customers will receive in their next water bill a flier discouraging them from flushing baby wipes, paper towels, tissues and feminine hygiene products down the toilet. The information already is posted on the agency’s website.

While there have not been any reports of significant clogging in the city’s sewer system, workers have discovered an accumulation of disinfectant wipes in the filtration system at its wastewater treatment plant.

“We have noticed a higher accumulation of that material — the rags, the wipes that people flush down the toilet,” Kraft said.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, in a March 17 news release, that flushing wipes, paper towels and similar products down toilets cannot only clog sewers, but also cause backups and overflows at wastewater treatment facilities, creating an additional public health risk in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Even wipes labeled ‘flushable’ will clog pipes and interfere with sewage collection and treatment throughout the state.” according to the press release.

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