Canada is leading an international work group to come up with an industry-wide standard for so-called flushable wipes as waste-water experts in North America and beyond blame the personal towelettes for a host of sewage system problems.
Barry Orr, a waste-water official in London, Ont., is among the Canadians leading the Geneva-based International Standards Organization's efforts to develop the standard.
Orr is currently developing tests that will determine the flushability of a barrage of products on the market that declare themselves sewer- and septic-safe.
"Canada is at the forefront in addressing the flushability of these products," Orr, who has been raising alarms bells about the products for years, said in a recent interview.
"We're leading the ISO, and we're working with nations across the globe to make improvements."
Flushable wipes are a multibillion-dollar business.
But from Louisiana to southwestern Ontario and rural England, plumbers and waste-water experts say the pre-moistened wipes, branded as a cleaner alternative to toilet paper, are taking a terrible toll on residential pipes and municipal sewage systems, causing major clogs and sewer backups.
Just last month, officials in the Minnesota town of Cambridge said they suspected personal wipes were the culprit after 20,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into a river after a backup at a waste-water treatment facility.
The manufacturers, meantime, say their products are accurately labelled as safe to go down the toilet, and have been subjected to a litany of flushability tests. It's products that aren't meant to be flushed – including baby wipes and feminine hygiene products – that are causing municipalities trouble, they say.
The companies are pushing for a joint education and awareness campaign, together with environmental agencies, that would alert people about the dangers of flushing products that weren't meant to go down the toilet.
South of the border, however, the Federal Trade Commission has been looking into the manufacturers' claims that the wipes are flushable. An official at Canada's Competition Bureau, meantime, says he "cannot confirm whether or not we are currently looking into this matter."
In recent weeks, several American communities have pleaded with citizens to stop flushing the wipes.
"When you flush them, coming to the wastewater plant, they don't degrade in a timely manner so they clog up the system," said an official in Lake Charles, La.
A California woman has also launched a class-action lawsuit against Kimberly Clark, maker of Cottonelle Fresh Care personal wipes, claiming she paid a premium for a product that advertises itself as safe to flush but is not.
The ISO is a global standard-setting body composed of representatives from various national standards organizations. The Standards Council of Canada says it's "supporting the participation of Canadian key subject matter experts in international standardization activities."