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Hazards of public toilet use debunked

08/03/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 08/02/2016 05:59 EDT
Cover, hover or hold?

Who hasn't thought twice about sitting on a public toilet seat? Covering the seat with toilet paper is one popular method to put a little space between you and the seat. Maybe you hover? Or cross your legs and wait until you get home? You're not alone. Many people think they can catch a disease from the toilet seat — a fear that has led to a market for personal seat covers and portable seat-sanitizing sprays.

But those worries are overblown, according to one microbiologist in Toronto. "Unless you lick the toilet seat, there's really no likelihood of you catching an infection," says Jason Tetro, an author and researcher otherwise known as the Germ Guy.

Toilet seats are indeed crawling with human bacterial populations, usually in the form of fecal bacteria, says Tetro, who wrote The Germ Code: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Microbes. But for the most part, coming into direct skin contact with these poses a minimal risk. "When you sit down, you're actually creating a seal … and unless you have a giant gash on your posterior that can allow bacteria to get into your bloodstream, there's no risk at all."

Never mind the seat

There is a slight risk after getting up from the seat. That's because studies have shown flushing a "loaded" toilet sends tiny water droplets airborne, with bacteria hitching a ride as far as two metres, landing on sinks or the floor.

The health risk is heightened if gastrointestinal viruses such as Norwalk are transported in this manner. At home, this risk can be minimized by simply putting the cover down before flushing. But public toilets often don't have lids.

Tetro says proper hand washing will mitigate any risks. He also warns of the accidental triggering of the auto-flush function while the user is still seated. Depending on what's in the bowl, contaminated droplets could land on the skin. But he says again unless there's a cut or open wound, the risk is minimal.

Avoid a yeast infection 

There is a slight chance toilets can harbour yeast populations at the front of the bowl, "and it can possibly touch the genitals. If that happens, there is a likelihood that you can come up with an infection." said Tetro. These are usually present in washrooms used by women.

Draping a seat with toilet paper is unlikely to offer any protection. He suggests folding up some toilet paper and placing it at the front of the bowl. "I do this too actually," he said.

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