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Flushing Toilets – spreading germs

Photo credit – dirtyboxface via Flickr

When you flush your toilet, even the modern low-flush models that use a gallon or less per flush, you will aerosolize the water particles along with sewage and potentially infectious bacteria and viruses contained in the water, into microscopic mist that can travel 6 or more feet from the toilet bowl.  There are interesting videos showing the movement of this mist across the bathroom.  Within 2 feet of the toilet, larger water drops from the toilet will travel onto the seat and onto surfaces in the immediate area of the toilet bowl.

Therefore you are faced with the following areas of contamination:

  1.  The inside of the toilet bowl – each flushing with water removes some but not all of the bacteria above the water level inside the bowl. Repeated toilet use replaces the bacteria. In addition, the bacteria adhering to this surface will multiply because of the presence of water, oxygen and a medium to feed off.
  2.  The toilet seat – this can be particularly disturbing when using a public toilet which is irregularly cleaned and has heavy use. There will be germs and water spray on top of the seat from the flushing by its last occupant.
  3.  The air in the bathroom – entering a closed bathroom soon after its last occupant has departed will expose you to the remaining aerosolized microscopic particles (think bacteria) floating in the air that are slowly settling to the floor.
  4.  The bathroom floor – if this is a public restroom, you are protected by wearing shoes. However, if this is your home and the floor is tiled, the droplets (sewage) and bacteria will adhere to your feet and can be tracked into other rooms.  If the bathroom is carpeted, it is much more difficult to remove the bacteria and spray that have soaked into the carpeting without a disinfecting steamcleaning.
  5.  Your sink and toothbrush – if this is your home toilet, the aerosolized particles will land on your toothbrush and sink counter top. Yuck.

Photo credit – Dave Parker

Short of entering a toilet with a surgical mask and gloves, there are some steps you can take to reduce though not eliminate your exposure:

  1. If this is a public toilet, unfortunately you have no control over what method the last person used when flushing. So just assume the worst. Your only area of control is the toilet seat. Either cover it with paper before you use it, or spray it with a cleaner such as Olive Leaf Surface Cleaner (portable 2 oz size) and wipe the seat dry before use. Try holding your breath. Before flushing, as a courtesy to the next person, lower the toilet seat and the seat back. This will reduce the amount of overspray and aerosol travel, though not eliminate it. Try not to touch the sink or faucet – use a paper towel to operate the water controls.  Use a paper towel to open the bathroom door so that you do not have contact with the surfaces other people have touched.
  2. If this is your own home bathroom, store your cups, toothbrush, dental floss, and any other tool that will come into contact with your mouth …. in a cabinet.  Wipe down the toilet seat, door knob and sink surfaces regularly and clean them with bleach or the less noxious chemical-free Olive Leaf Surface Cleaner. Clean the floor’s surface regularly. Clean the inside of the bowl at least once a week, preferably more often. Remember to change your hand towels several times a week because they are within the spray zone of the aerosolized mist.  Lower the toilet seat and seat back before flushing.

We do not live in a seawater-protected environment like these Grunts in the photo below, taken inside the Santorini (Greece) volcano’s dome. Actually, while they may be protected from bacteria, they are not protected from the local Greek fishermen who have pretty much eliminated any living edible sea life from this coastline.  In fact, the dive guide was so excited to find any live fish at all that they did not recognize this species.  Usually these waters are completely barren of marine life.  In all fairness to our Greek friends, the area we were diving, inside the volcanic dome, was mostly free of life because the volcano is still releasing gases into the water which are keeping the area sterile, even though its last eruption was in ~1940.

Grunts schooling – Santorini Island



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