Should I flush it? Most of­ten, the an­swer is no

Toronto Star - - INSIGHT - CHRISTINA CARON THE NEW YORK TIMES

It might seem harm­less at first: a thread of den­tal floss tossed in the toi­let, a con­tact lens swirling down the drain of the bath­room sink. But even the tini­est items can con­tam­i­nate wa­ter­ways.

The small frag­ments of plas­tic con­tact lenses are be­lieved to be con­tribut­ing to the grow­ing prob­lem of mi­croplas­tic pol­lu­tion. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, which are also fre­quently flushed down the drain, have been found in our drink­ing wa­ter, and the con­se­quences are not fully known.

Larger prod­ucts like wipes and tam­pons are also clog­ging sewer sys­tems, re­sult­ing in bil­lions of dol­lars in main­te­nance and re­pair costs.

Won­der­ing what is safe to flush or wash down the drain? We spoke with sev­eral waste wa­ter man­age­ment ex­perts who ex­plained why many fre­quently dis­posed items be­long in a garbage can, not the toi­let.

Dis­pos­able wipes Many wipes claim on their pack­ag­ing to be “flush­able,” but al­most all of them con­tain rayon or vis­cose, said Rob Vil­lée, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Plain­field Area Re­gional Sew­er­age Au­thor­ity in Mid­dle­sex, New Jersey.

“Un­for­tu­nately, the nat­u­ral wa­ter bod- ies th­ese get into do not have the heat or mi­cro-or­gan­ism lev­els to ef­fec­tively de­grade th­ese,” he added. “That is why we see rayon ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in the oceans.”

Den­tal floss Den­tal floss, which is usu­ally made of ny­lon or Te­flon, should also stay out of the toi­let.

“It seems like, ‘Oh, it’s just a lit­tle string,’ but it tends to wrap things up,” Vil­lée said. “It’ll col­lect other things and make kind of a big wad of stuff. It’s in- cred­i­bly strong.”

Con­tact lenses When con­tact lenses are flushed down the toi­let or washed down the sink, they do not biode­grade eas­ily. As a re­sult, they may make their way into sur­face wa­ter, caus­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, new re­search has shown.

The lenses are also im­per­vi­ous to the bac­te­ria that break down bi­o­log­i­cal waste at treat­ment plants. When re­searchers at Ari­zona State Univer­sity sub­merged contacts in cham­bers with the bac­te­ria, they found that the lenses ap­peared in­tact seven days later.

Med­i­ca­tions Waste wa­ter treat­ment plants are not de­signed to fil­ter out phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, so drugs that are dis­posed of in the toi­let or the sink drain end up en­ter­ing streams, rivers and lakes.

The first ma­jor study to doc­u­ment this, con­ducted by the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, found low lev­els of or­ganic waste wa­ter com­pounds, in­clud­ing pre­scrip­tion and non-pre­scrip­tion drugs and hor­mones, in 139 streams across the United States dur­ing 1999 and 2000. One or more of th­ese chem­i­cals were found in 80 per cent of the streams sam­pled.

A more re­cent study, which sam­pled wa­ter from 25 drink­ing-wa­ter treat­ment plants in the United States, found that some phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals per­sisted de­spite wa­ter treat­ment pro­cesses.

Fa­cial tis­sues and pa­per tow­els Fa­cial tis­sues might seem safe to flush be­cause they look so much like toi­let pa­per. But un­like toi­let pa­per, fa­cial tis­sues have been treated with a chem­i­cal bin­der that takes time to re­lease and break apart when flushed.

When in doubt, throw it out (in a trash can).

KARSTEN MO­RAN THE NEW YORK TIMES

When asked what is safe to dis­pose of down your toi­let, ex­perts say “not much.”

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