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Public Washrooms Are Just Like Office Washrooms, Study Finds

12/02/2014 10:42 EST | Updated 12/04/2014 06:59 EST
Ivan Oyarzun via Getty Images

Despite their wretched reputation, microbial communities in public restrooms aren't that different from your home or office, according to a new study.

Toilet flushing, say the researchers, disperses "enteric" bacteria such as gut flora and pathogenic bacteria not normally found in other locations, although this type of bacteria is short-lived.

"We hypothesized that while enteric bacteria would be dispersed rapidly due to toilet flushing, they would not survive long, as most are not good competitors in cold, dry, oxygen-rich environments," says corresponding author Jack A. Gilbert of San Diego State University. "As such, we expected the skin microbes to take over -- which is exactly what we found."

The researchers first sterilized the surfaces of toilet seats, soap dispensers, floors and countertops, and then swabbed them on the hour, then daily, for a period of eight weeks.

They watched as microbial communities became more alike from surface to surface as they attained similar populations of the same species.

This began five hours after decontamination and remained level for the duration of the study.

Toilet seats hosted communities according to the gender they served: the seats of commodes in the ladies' room were rich in the vaginal floras Lactobacillus and Anaerococcus and gentlemen's room toilet seats contained gut floras Roseburia and Blautia.

Yet microbiota that come from the skin and the outdoors comprised 68 to 98 percent of the communities, with fecal and gut species sparsely represented at 0 to 15 percent.

Even prior to sterilization, microbial communities associated with the outdoors dominated the surfaces and they took over, once again, after the restroom had been decontaminated.

Gilbert says that ultimately a public restroom is no more healthy or unhealthy than the home, which may sound shocking, yet the presence of pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was roughly just as rare in the restroom as it is in the home.

That being said, Gilbert cautions against classifying public restrooms as healthy spaces, although they shouldn't be feared or

considered unhealthy either.

The study was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

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