Stopping sewage spills: three common causes of sewage spills and how to prevent them

Jamie Woodhall, Technical & Innovations Manager at Rentokil Specialist Hygiene

Sewage is very obviously unpleasant. It is unsightly, pungent and can be dangerous. Raw sewage can contain a variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that could pose serious health risks to anyone that comes into contact with it. In the event of a sewage leak, spill or toilet backup, it is essential that cleaning professionals are called quickly to clean and disinfect the area in order to help to reduce the risk to human health. But how do sewage spills commonly occur and what can be done to prevent them?

As with most things, prevention is better and generally cheaper than a cure. Here are the three most common causes of sewage spills and how best to avoid them occurring.

1. Something being flushed down the pipes that should't be

Toilet backups or blockages to sewage systems are one of the most common causes of sewage leaks and spills. Toilet backups are usually caused when inappropriate and inorganic waste or objects are put in the toilet and then flushed or washed down into sewage systems. Inorganic waste such as sanitary items, nappies, hair or substances such as fats, oils and grease can combine in pipes to become solid, immovable objects. Often, it only takes a small amount of the wrong thing to be flushed down the pipes to cause a significant blockage, either at the source or further along the sewage infrastructure. Engineers in London were recently called in to remove a fatburg (a collection of waste materials that have fused together) which was the size of a bungalow, from a sewer.

Those managing washrooms and kitchen facilities should display clear signs that instruct users to avoid putting anything other than organic waste down toilets and sinks. For toilets it really should only be the three Ps (pee, paper, poo) that are put down the loo. It is also wise to provide enough bins and disposal units in washrooms and ensure they are regularly cleared, so visitors have appropriate places to discard sanitary and other waste.

Having a disposal unit that is easy to reach, ideally close to toilets and baby changing tables, can help prevent people from trying to dispose of unflushable items down the loo. Making sure that everyone in the building knows how to correctly dispose of washroom and food waste is also crucial in preventing blockages that could lead to harmful sewage spills.

2. Systems are overloaded or overflow

In extreme weather, excessive and heavy rain can lead to overflows in drains and sewage systems, which can combine with flood water creating dangerous sewage sludge. Residents in Northumberland experienced this unfortunate occurrence recently, following the wild weather created by Storm Darcy. With more than 150 days of rainfall in the UK each year, flooding is a common occurrence across the country.

Natural debris such as rocks and plant waste that accumulate outside a building can also contribute to blocking drainage systems, and then lead to floods. To prevent these from contributing to the problem, it’s important to maintain cleanliness outside of a building. Sweeping and clearing driveways, streets and outside areas doesn’t just make for a visually pleasing environment, it could also save you a lot of money in the long run as it reduces the risk of leaf litter, plant waste and debris from blocking drainage systems, which could contribute to a flood situation.

3. Cracked or Broken Pipes

Broken or damaged pipes are not always obvious, and many pipes burst or leak without warning. For internal pipework within a property it can be days, weeks or even months before you notice the signs of a damaged pipe such as a damp patch or water stain. However, once you do spot a leaking or broken pipe, it’s critical to act fast. Pipes can become cracked or broken for a reasons from freezing temperatures, corrosion and aging, to tree roots and shifting soil, or from clogs due to improper waste entering them, which can in turn put pressure on the pipe and cause it to crack or break. As pipes are typically located out of sight, under the floor or in the walls, it’s a good idea to get a plumber or professional to check your pipes every few years.

Final Thoughts

Whilst it is important to do what you can to prevent a sewage spill, you can not mitigate all possibilities of one occurring. If you experience a sewage leak or spill, it is important that a professional cleans the area and carries out the safe removal and disposal of potential contaminants. Rentokil Specialist Hygiene provides a specialist sewage cleanup service to help reduce the associated risks to human health caused by sewage.