The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more people than ever to consider the potential for airborne particles to damage their health, with many now trying to limit their exposure to potentially harmful aerosols in common situations.
One you might like to avoid is a public toilet, although older Australians who develop weaker bladders as they age may not be able to avoid this altogether.
A recent study found that public toilets can be a hotbed for germs, spreading pathogens for gastro, COVID-19 and even Ebola.
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The main reason public toilets present such a dangerous health hazard is that flushing can generate large quantities of microbe-containing aerosols.
The amount spread depends on the design, water pressure and flushing power of the toilet.
The researchers explained that while respiratory droplets are the main source of transmission for COVID-19, alternative routes may exist given the discovery of small numbers of viable viruses in urine and stool samples.
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Public toilets are a concern for transmitting COVID-19 because they are relatively confined, experience heavy foot traffic and may not have adequate ventilation.
A team of scientists from Florida Atlantic University investigated droplets generated from flushing a toilet and a urinal in a public restroom under normal ventilation conditions.
To measure the droplets, they used a particle counter placed at various heights of the toilet and urinal to capture the size and number of droplets generated upon flushing.
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Results of the study demonstrate how public toilets could serve as hotbeds for airborne disease transmission, especially if they do not have adequate ventilation or if toilets do not have a lid or cover, as is the case in a lot of Australian public toilets.
For the study, researchers obtained data from three different scenarios: toilet flushing, covered toilet flushing and urinal flushing. They examined the data to determine the increase in aerosol concentration, the behaviour of droplets of different sizes, how high the droplets rose, and the impact of covering the toilet.
Ambient aerosol levels were measured before and after conducting the experiments.
“After about three hours of tests involving more than 100 flushes, we found a substantial increase in the measured aerosol levels in the ambient environment with the total number of droplets generated in each flushing test ranging up to the tens of thousands,” said Dr Siddhartha Verma.
“Both the toilet and urinal generated large quantities of droplets smaller than three micrometres in size, posing a significant transmission risk if they contain infectious microorganisms. Due to their small size, these droplets can remain suspended for a long time.”
Researchers detected a smaller number of droplets in the air when the toilet was flushed with a closed lid, although not by much, suggesting that aerosolised droplets escaped through small gaps between the cover and the seat.
The authors of the study are advocating for better ventilation systems in public toilets to help prevent aerosol accumulation in these areas that see high levels of traffic.
The other strategy to employ when using a public toilet is to not linger too long after flushing because as the study shows that will increase your risk of being exposed to aerosolised droplets.
Have you gone back to using public toilets now that the pandemic threat in Australia has eased? Have you considered wearing a mask in a public toilet to protect yourself from disease?
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