(WMC) – WMC Action News 5 is bringing you an investigation that takes you where no cameras have ever gone before: Memphis' sewer system.
Why? "Flushable" toilet wipes are wreaking havoc on city sewer pipes. And it is costing you money.
This problem is not just happening in Memphis, but all over the Mid-South.
"Flushable is one thing, but do they break down enough not to cause us problems downstream?" said Memphis Environmental Engineer Paul Patterson.
Concerns over flushable toilet wipes are doing a number on Mid-South plumbing. City leaders wonder if they have done enough after seeing reports across the country on flushable wipes.
Even if you are not buying flushable wipes, you are paying for it. They are advertised as a cleaner, fresher option or to dry toilet paper alone. But, flushable cleansing cloths are being blamed for clogging the nation's sewer systems. Memphis is no exception.
"There's a lot of repercussions from sanitary overflows and backups," said Patterson.
Patterson has seen an increase in white fibrous materials in the Memphis sewer system.
"We've noticed an accumulation also in some of our pumps ... A lot of time what we see is large fibrous balls," he said.
The city of Memphis Wastewater Treatment Plant filters 72 million gallons of wastewater a day.
"You would be amazed at the kind of things you find on the bar screens the front and back, you wonder how people could get in a sewer system," said Memphis Plant Manager Mike Brower.
As the popularity of flushable wipes has grown, so have backups and clogs along the city's 2,600 miles of sewer lines.
"When we have blockages backups or we have to pull maintenance on our pumps, it's very expensive," said Patterson.
A recent $4 million enhancement to the filtering system has cut down on clogs in Memphis, but debris can get caught up anywhere between the plant and your house.
"When tissue wipes, moist wipes do not break down and there's the slightest defect in the sewer line it will collect on it, it will hang on it," said Patterson.
He says the wipes are not disintegrating, some industry tests suggest because water does not flow this aggressively.
"In our sewer system which is basically 95 percent gravity flow, it's a gentle flow," said Patterson.
Wipes are also causing problems in Southaven where the mayor says water pumps are burning up at a cost of $1,200 to $1,400 to replace.
Patterson cannot estimate how much wipes in the pipes are draining the city's $13 million annual environmental maintenance budget. What it is, it could result in your money going down the drain.
"You know at the end of the day the rate payers are the ones that fund the program," said Patterson.
He hopes manufacturers will consider developing an improved flushable wipe.
"Because everybody agrees the primary objective is to keep the wastewater into the pipe. And not have backups overflows or any disruption to service," said Patterson. In the meantime, he hopes you'll think twice before you flush.
Manufacturers insist wipes labeled flushable are not the problem, pointing instead to things like paper towels, feminine hygiene products and baby wipes clearly marked as non-flushable.
Sanitation officials admit, at the end of the line, it is hard to tell what is what. Click here to see more pictures of Memphis' sewer system.