Let us consider the cringe-inducing public toilet.
Untold numbers of strangers have done their business there before you walked in. Microbes lurk on seats, knobs and handles. Flooring around toilets and urinals can be repulsively wet. Soap and towels may be nonexistent. Exit doors have to be pulled open.
Support local news coverage and the people who report it by subscribing to the Napa Valley Register.
What got me thinking was a New York Times article, “How bad are the germs in public restrooms, really?”
Experts weighed in. Yes, every surface in a public restroom may be contaminated with microbes of one kind or another, including norovirus, salmonella, hepatitis A and MRSA, but most people pass through unscathed.
The story struck a nerve. More than 800 readers, most of them far more germ-obsessed than myself, wrote comments. Many focused on the finding that flushing a toilet can create an aerosolized plume of microbes that can reach five feet into the air and remain suspended for an hour or more before contaminating virtually every surface in the restroom.
People are also reading…
Every surface? Contaminated? How am I still alive?
Commenters said they enter public potties prepared to wipe down common surfaces with paper towels, toilet paper and disinfecting wipes. In a worst-case scenario, when it’s just you and your bare hands, a reader recommended using only the pinkie on your non-dominant hand for touching anything.
“I do not touch even my own body unless by accident,” another reader declared.
One commenter said they sprayed the soles of their shoes with disinfectant before getting back in their car. Restroom floors are the worst.
Scoffers also weighed in. If the health threat were substantial, “humanity would have been decimated since the introduction of the flushing toilet,” said one. “This is a foolish article pandering to people’s unreasonable fears about unseen microbes everywhere,” said another.
“Seriously, just wash your hands, then don’t touch anything and worry about other things,” one reader advised.
A guy in Maryland said he wished he hadn’t read the article. “Who needs to know that we are all walking through a plume of fecal matter when there is little we can do about it.”
I shared the story with Cheryl, but she was already up to speed on health threats lurking in restrooms.
She touches handles with a tissue, she always uses a seat cover when available, she hovers when appropriate.
She also voiced a personal gripe: she hates sharing restrooms with males who spray.
I’m mostly in the camp with those who said the story conveyed too much information. Having survived army toilets, all-male dorm toilets, untold gas station toilets, toilets in rural Greece, portable toilets at my annual Turkey Trots, and one spectacularly defaced portable at a national forest campground, my approach is to simply go numb when I’m away from home and nature calls.
I get in and get out fast. I don’t let my eyes wander where they need not wander. Extreme germophobes recommend wearing N95 masks to protect against public restroom aerosols. Not me. If I sense grossness, I double down on handwashing.
What’s the proper handwashing technique? Scrub with soap for at least 20 seconds, rinse, then dry. A paper towel is better than a blow dryer, which can spread germs.
Yes, air dryers save forests, but they can also blow germs up to 10 feet, according to the Times article.
All this attention on restrooms should not blind us to other commonly contaminated surfaces, readers noted.
Handrails, salt and pepper shakers, restaurant menus, reusable water bottles, cellphones, gas pump handles — the list of germy places is endless.
Rather than despair, a few readers suggested a reframe. Perhaps microbe exposure makes us healthier in the long run by stimulating our immune systems.
“Live filthy, stay healthy,” said one.
Hikers on the Appalachian Trail face difficult decisions as the coronavirus pandemic worsens: postpone a dream or ignore warnings and keep hiking.
Seniors dance in their homes, getting the exercise that is so important to maintaining their health and mobility amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Hopes are high for a new blood test for COVID-19, which shows results in a matter of minutes compared to the test kit which takes days for results.
Michigan State University is using a commercial oven to re-sterilize N95 masks.
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!