HALIFAX -- Officials with Halifax Water says it’s a simple message that too many people are ignoring.

"Pee, poo, and toilet paper only," says utility spokesperson James Campbell. "The best thing people can do to help us out, and help the crews out, is don’t use your toilet as a garbage can."

With more people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many using more sanitizing wipes and protective rubber gloves to try to ward off the virus, Campbell says the city’s wastewater system is getting dangerously clogged.

Improperly discarded wipes and gloves are ending up in the sewer system and clogging up the works.

Crews are busy trying to keep on top of the situation to prevent any major problems. For example, workers regularly use a large vacuum truck to suck solid materials out of the sewer – something normally done as regular maintenance every six months. But now, crews are constantly returning to fix clogs in the system.

No where is the problem more evident than in the city’s 167 pumping stations, where solid material is caught and removed from wastewater by a series of screens. Those screens are now consistently clogged. Workers say disposable wipes have always been an issue, but they’ve never seen it this bad before.

"Crews are trying to get it cleaned out before it backs up into people’s homes," says Cambell, "because once it backs up into people’s homes, you’ve got a real nasty mess."

While they are working, crews wear special equipment, like respirator masks and other PPE, to guard against any biological mist in the air. Now, they are also wearing special suits to protect against possible exposure to COVID-19. 

Campbell says the work comes with risks.

"And a lot of this work," he adds, "shouldn’t have to be done, if people weren’t flushing gloves and wipes and dental floss and fat, oil, and grease down the drain."

Municipalities throughout the country are having the same problem. With so many people focused on trying to protect themselves from COVID-19, it seems the rest seems “out of sight, out of mind.” 

But even the screens can’t catch everything, and sometimes materials can make it into the pumps themselves, leading to potentially expensive problems. 

"The pump could be fried, they have to pull the pump right out of service," says Campbell, "either replace the parts, or replace the pumps completely. It’s dangerous work, it’s unnecessary work, and it’s expensive work."

Replacing one pump can cost upwards of $160,000.

While the city hasn't had to do that yet, Halifax Water would like to keep it that way.