Toilet plumes can launch germy droplets in the air. Experts share the precautions you should take before answering nature’s call in public restrooms.
An employee places facial masks in the bathroom of a suite of Berlin's famous Hotel Adlon Kempinski on May 26, 2020, one day after it reopened for tourism as restrictions were eased amid the novel coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP) (Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images)
By Sarah Gibbens
Few people have the bladder fortitude to last through drinks, dinner, or long road trips without having to use the restroom. But as more restaurants, bars, and other public spaces start to re-open this summer, questions have been swirling around whether using a public toilet could become a more serious health risk in the era of COVID-19.
Such worries came to a head this week when researchers in China published a study suggesting that flushing a toilet can create a plume of coronavirus-laden particles, which are flung into the air by the watery vortex inside a toilet bowl.
Several studies using genetic tests have previously detected the SARS-CoV-2 virus in stool samples, and at least one investigation shows that the coronaviruses in these feces can be infectious. When a person infected with COVID-19 defecates, the germ at first settles into the toilet bowl. But then “the flushing process can lift the virus out of the toilet and cause cross-infection among people,” says Ji-Xiang Wang, a physicist at Yangzhou University in China and coauthor on the paper published June 16 in the journal Physics of Fluids.
While the toilet plume effect has been studied for decades in relation to other diseases, many questions remain over its role in spreading germs, including the one that causes COVID-19. Neither the World Health Organization nor the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thinks it’s very likely COVID-19 can be spread by bowel movements leading to accidental consumption of virus particles, a route medically termed fecal-oral transmission.
Despite these uncertainties, experts say there are precautions you should take before answering nature’s call in publicly shared restrooms. Read more >>