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Baltimore officials: Don’t flush paper towels, tissues amid coronavirus-driven toilet paper shortages

Baltimore officials warned residents who may have run out of toilet paper amid the coronavirus pandemic: Don’t flush paper towels, tissues or other alternatives, or risk causing sewage backups.

Only toilet paper, which is designed to dissolve in sewage pipes, can be safely flushed down the toilet, said Matthew W. Garbark, the city’s acting public works director.

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“I realize that we are especially concerned about disinfection and proper disposal of used facial tissues,” Garbark said in a statement. "That is admirable. But disinfectant wipes, tissues, paper towels and ‘flushable wipes’ DO NOT belong in the toilet.”

Much of Baltimore’s sewer system — which also draws waste from Baltimore County residents on public water and sewer service — is a century old, prone to cracks, breaks and clogs. Both the city and county are under consent agreements with the Environmental Protection Agency to make repairs and stop sewage from escaping the aged pipes and fouling waterways.

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The city’s agreement also required it to close outflows that were originally designed to relieve pressure within the sewer system. That has led to an increase in sewage backups in basements across the city.

Garbark urged residents to never flush sanitary wipes — even those advertised as “flushable” — or paper towels, rags and other cleaning items. Fats, oils and grease should also not be poured down drains because they can also create blockages sometimes called “fatbergs” that cause sewage backups.

“By taking these steps, we can prevent sewer blockages, overflows, and expensive plumbing bills for you,” Garbark said.

The city has launched efforts to help pay for cleanup costs tied to sewage backups and sewer and water pipe breaks, but the programs have helped relatively few residents.

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