Public bathrooms are infested with germs — here’s how to avoid getting sick

ADELAIDE, Australia — Public bathrooms have had a reputation for being dirty and full of germs — even before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a new review finds nearly every inch of these facilities puts you at risk of infection from viruses and bacteria.

Unfortunately, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go — so how can you stay safe when using a public toilet is your only option? Researchers in Australia found a number of helpful strategies to avoid the bulk of germs lurking on bathroom surfaces.

The team from The Australian National University and University of South Australia reviewed 38 different studies from 13 countries, examining disease transmission inside a public bathroom. Their findings conclude that nearly everything — from open toilet lids, to defective drain pipes, uncovered garbage cans, and even electric hand dryers — are spreading infections to visitors.

Specifically, researchers say infectious aerosols (tiny droplets) can potentially spread through multi-story buildings through a defective plumbing system. When leaving toilet lids up or in cases where a public toilet has no lid, flushing can shoot out contaminated droplets and feces up to five feet!

Study authors also flagged uncovered garbage cans as a potential risk to public health. That risk is even greater when an electric hand dryer is nearby. The team found that these machines, which blow hot air on a user’s hands, also blow around the particles from the garbage and those hanging in the air.

Hygiene is everything in a public bathroom

Given the fear over the spread of COVID-19, researchers analyzed reports on the disease risks coming from bathrooms in restaurants, offices, commercial buildings, and schools. They found widespread evidence of contaminated surfaces being the cause of fecal-oral virus transmission. Simply put, touching germ-filled surfaces and then not washing properly led to many people later becoming ill.

Despite researchers finding evidence that aerosols can float around in bathrooms for several minutes, the team did not find any cases of airborne-related infectious disease transmission.

“Some people have been worried about using public washrooms during the pandemic, but if you minimize your time in the bathroom, wash and dry your hands properly, and don’t use your mobile phone, eat or drink, then the risks should be low, especially if the bathroom is well maintained,” says UniSA environmental scientist Professor Erica Donner in a university release.

“While there is limited evidence of COVID-19 transmission via public washrooms, they are rife with bacteria, especially those that are used frequently and not cleaned properly,” Prof. Donner continues.

“As borders open up and cases increase, people can protect themselves against COVID-19 infection by continuing to practice good hygiene. This includes handwashing and sanitizing, disinfecting door handles, toilet lids and other frequently touched surfaces.”

What’s lurking in the bathroom?

The team discovered a wide range of intestinal, skin, and soil bacteria inside these bathrooms worldwide. They also found respiratory viruses as well.

Open-lid flushing, poor hand washing practices, and poor cleaning techniques by maintenance workers ranked as the top things contributing to high viral loads in public restrooms. When it comes to the particles floating around and landing on floors, doors, and sinks, jet air dryers have the potential to create a tornado of germs inside a public toilet.

Study authors found that jet air dryers can spread viral droplets up to 10 feet! That becomes even more unnerving when you combine it with the discovery that toilet flush particles can remain in the air for over 30 minutes. One study estimates that the number of particles a toilet flush ejects equals the same number as a person talking loudly for six and a half minutes.

“Although there is a potential risk of aerosols spreading from toilet flushing and hand drying, we found no evidence of airborne transmission of intestinal or respiratory pathogens in public bathrooms in the literature we reviewed,” Prof. Donner notes.

“However, there is no doubt that thorough hand washing and effective hand drying is critical in stopping the spread of diseases. These habits will not only lower the risk of COVID-19 infection but also limit the risk of bacterial infections.”

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

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