Coronavirus: U.K. sewage system in danger of ‘fatberg’ clogs thanks to wet wipes, paper towels

Click to play video: 'Experts say panic buying during COVID-19 could be self-defeating'
Experts say panic buying during COVID-19 could be self-defeating
B.C.'s top doctor is making it clear there is no need to stockpile food and other supplies during the new coronavirus outbreak – Mar 14, 2020

As many rush to stores to panic-purchase toilet paper amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, they’re being warned over overusing substitutes like paper towel and wet wipes.

They’re clogging, and potentially overwhelming, the U.K.’s sewage system.

Thames Water, the U.K.’s biggest water and wastewater service, is warning consumers not to “feed” the “fatbergs,” a build-up of fat and non-biodegradable matter.

The so-called “fatbergs” are created when items like wet wipes and paper towel combine with oil, grease and fat in the sewage system and create blocks, forming iceberg-like formations.

The organization took to Twitter to share the warning, writing: “We’re reminding everyone to help us by not flushing wet wipes, kitchen roll down their toilets. … Instead, they should be thrown in the bin.”

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Speaking to The Guardian, a Thames Water spokesperson said: “Fatbergs are a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone forever. They are like monsters from the deep, lurking and slowly growing under our feet. Our advice is always to bin your fat and wipes, and don’t feed the fatberg.”

Richard Wilding, a leading supply chain academic, says people are likely not considering these effects amidst the panic.

“If kitchen towels, baby wipes or industrial papers are used as a replacement for toilet paper, our sewage systems could readily become blocked with the resulting chaos and increased health risks associated with this,” he told the publication.

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“Ultimately, water companies may not have the infrastructure and equipment to unblock the sewer system.”

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As fears of COVID-19 continue to rise, people are hitting the stores to stock up on essentials like toilet paper, canned food, soap and hand sanitizer.

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Around the world and at home in Canada, the panic has left stores completely out of stock on these items, leading to supply chain disruptions and leaving some empty-handed.

Some have taken to social media and posted photos of empty shelves, picked-over packages of pasta and other items completely removed in big-name grocery stores like Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s.

While panic is a “very human” response, Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab, previously told Global News, it’s neither helpful nor proportionate to the current risk level.

Although Health Canada has recommended people build emergency kits — including items like water, non-perishable foods and prescription medication — they’ve also said stockpiling essentials in bulk isn’t necessary right now.

“It is easier on the supply chain if people gradually build up their household stores instead of making large-scale purchases all at once,” reads the site. “To do this, you can add a few extra items to your grocery cart every time you shop.”

Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

Visit full COVID-19 coverage on Global News.

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