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Toilets and hand dryers in public restrooms spread germs, study finds

Experts say there are steps consumers can take to stay healthy while using the bathroom

Public restroom door and sign
Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images
Regularly washing and sanitizing your hands has become an even more common practice since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this has been found to be an effective way to reduce the risk of spreading germs, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of South Australia suggests that even more needs to be done. 

Based on an analysis of public restrooms across 13 countries, the researchers learned that leaving the toilet lid open and using jet hand dryers can increase the risk of bacterial and viral 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,” said researcher Erica Donner. “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.” 

Staying healthy in public restrooms

For the study, the researchers analyzed nearly 40 earlier studies that came from over a dozen different countries. The main focus of each of these analyses was to better understand the disease risks associated with using public restrooms. 

Ultimately, the researchers determined that the risk of airborne infections, like COVID-19, isn't likely to increase when consumers use public bathrooms. However, there are other disease risks present when using the bathroom in places like restaurants, movie theaters, or office buildings. 

The biggest risks come from poor hygiene habits in these bathrooms. Air hand dryers and leaving the toilet lid open after flushing were some of the prime ways for bacteria to spread in public restrooms. For example, leaving the toilet lid open after flushing may spread bacteria more than one meter around the room for more than 30 minutes. Jet hand dryers proved to be even more of a risk, as bacteria spread as far as three meters when consumers used these devices. 

“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,” Donner said. “However, there is no doubt that thorough hand washing and effective hand drying is critical in stopping the spread of diseases.”

Keeping up with proper hygiene

The researchers hope consumers don’t avoid going into public restrooms. While poor cleaning and hygiene habits certainly increase the risk of infection, there are ways for consumers to stay safe and healthy. 

“As borders open up and cases increase, people can protect themselves against COVID-19 infection by continuing to practice good hygiene,” said Donner. “This includes hand washing and sanitizing, and disinfecting door handles, toilet lids, and other frequently touched surfaces. These habits will not only lower the risk of COVID-19 infection but also limit the risk of bacterial infections.”

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