Tuesday 28th April 2020 11:00
A foul clump of wet wipes and other 'unflushables’ as heavy as a rottweiler has been dragged from a Thames Water sewer, as blockages in the region climb almost 20 per cent during lockdown.
This grim 40kg bundle had snarled up a temporary pipe in Shoppenhangers Road, Maidenhead, where Thames Water is repairing a collapsed sewer. Engineers at the scene are clearing such blockages at least once a week to prevent pollution to homes and the environment. Each operation takes two hours, using up valuable repair time.
During the coronavirus outbreak, Thames Water has seen an increase of about 10 sewer blockages per day compared to normal. Many shoppers have been bulk-buying toilet roll as a result of the pandemic, leaving others turning to seemingly harmless alternatives such as wet wipes, tissues, kitchen roll and even newspapers.
But these unflushables – which also include nappies, sanitary products and cotton buds – don’t break down like toilet paper, causing blockages that can lead to flooding and pollution. They can also combine with fats, oils and grease to create fatbergs.
Stephen Sanderson, Thames Water area network manager, said: “We appreciate and understand everyone is using wipes more and washing their hands a lot more as recommended. But, please remember, the only things that should be flushed down the loo are the 3Ps: poo, pee and toilet paper.
“Wipes and things like kitchen roll if used instead of toilet paper can’t go down the loo. As nasty as it sounds, if people do use them as a last resort they need to be put in a bin and disposed of safely.”
Thames Water staff have been classed as key workers during the outbreak, meaning those unable to work from home will continue to fix leaks, carry out major civil engineering and resilience schemes, and maintain services at reservoirs, water treatment works and sewage sites. Non-essential work, such as meter readings, has been reduced.
It’s not just rag that engineers have to contend with. Last month a razor blade was found at Kingsley Square sewage pumping station, near Guildford, wedged in a mass of unflushables.
Technicians Andy Dickson and Ian Mazzone said: “We immediately stepped back as the last thing you want to do is cut yourself when you’re handling raw sewage. Unfortunately this is something we regularly come across, which we why we always take a good look at blockages before going in with our hands. There are all sorts of sharp bits in there, none of which should be going down the toilet.”
Other unusual items found in sewers and sewage works by Thames Water in recent years include a toy car, a screwdriver and even a shotgun. In 2018, Andy himself discovered a lacy vest clinging to dirty wet wipes at Bordon pumping station, which serves thousands of homes in North Hampshire and Surrey.
As part of its ongoing ‘Bin It – Don’t Block It’ campaign, Thames Water, which spends £18 million every year clearing 75,000 blockages from its sewers, has produced a series of radio adverts reminding customers to be mindful of what they flush during the pandemic.