Toilet Trivia

Did you know that most people using public restrooms are really “bathroom gymnasts”?

According to a study conducted by NSF International, a not-for-profit standards-development and testing and certification organization, more than 90 percent of respondents perform some type of gymnastics while in a public restroom. The study found that most users will do almost anything to avoid touching restroom surfaces, such as doors, partitions, faucets or dispenser handles.

For instance, nearly 40 percent said they use their elbows to turn on electric hand-dryers. Additionally, restroom users often will push open stall doors with their elbows or bodies instead of their hands. Many users reported that they crouch precariously above a toilet seat rather than actually sitting on it, and as far as touching the flush handle, forget it. Others reported using their feet to perform this task.

The survey also noted what many facility and camp managers already know--women do not want to touch the conventional “flip-top” or wall-mounted sanitary-napkin receptacles typically found in ladies’ restrooms. Instead, they most often dispose of napkins down the toilet, which leads to the number-one cause of plumbing problems and clogging in many public facilities.

The concern is that restrooms are home to scores of germs. And it’s true that potentially health-risking pathogens do live on restroom surfaces, and can remain alive and well for a much longer period of time than many people realize. Scientific & Regulatory Consultants Inc., of Columbia City, Ind., conducted a study of pathogens and their life expectancies on common high-touch surfaces in hospitals, public restrooms and other locations; the organization reported the following life spans of pathogens on various surfaces:

· Staph pathogens--up to 10 days on dry surfaces

· Salmonella--24 hours

· MRSA--14 days on Formica

· C. difficile--five months on floors; up to 40 days on other hospital room surfaces after a patient has departed

· Rotavirus--10 days on most surfaces

· Rhinovirus and RSV--24 hours on dry surfaces

· Influenza A and B--48 hours on plastic, steel and stainless-steel surfaces

And these are not all. Streptococcus, staphylococcus, E. coli, shigella bacteria, hepatitis A virus, the common cold virus and various sexually transmitted organisms have regularly been detected on some surfaces, including those in public restrooms. Indeed, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many as 40 million Americans become sick each year from hand-borne (surface-to-hand-to-mouth) bacteria, often originating from restroom surfaces.

“Because of this, we should take prudent precautions when using a restroom,” says Doug Calvert, President of Cannon Hygiene, a restroom-hygiene service company with franchises and company-owned locations throughout the United States. “However, as bad as this may seem, we still want to keep all of this in perspective and use common sense.”

A Visit To The Germ Mall

According to Calvert, we can view restrooms as “germ malls.” Just as some stores in a typical mall have more goods for sale than others, some areas of a public restroom may have more pathogens present while other surfaces may have fewer, and be much safer than we realize.

For instance:

1. Toilets. Any restroom user’s biggest germ-center fear is the toilet. However, toilets--especially those with automatic flushing systems--are not a common vehicle for transmitting infections. Unless there is a cut or sore on the user’s buttocks, germs that are present are unlikely to be transferred.

2. Toilet mists. Each time a toilet is flushed, microscopic toilet “mists” (carrying a host of harmful bacteria) are released. Studies presented by Dr. Stephanie Dancer at the 2008 Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) conference found that even after thorough cleaning with chlorine bleach, some microorganisms are still present in toilet bowls, and can be released when the toilet is flushed.

The greatest danger is not when the toilet is first flushed, but rather at the end of the flush, when most of the water has left the bowl. To avoid a problem, leave the stall as soon as the toilet is flushed.

3. Faucets. Germs colonize on faucet handles. However, proper hand-washing can alleviate this problem, which is slowly being eliminated as facilities replace faucet handles with auto-flow systems.

4. Sinks. Just as faucets are problem areas, sinks can be reservoirs of germ colonies. The moisture in the sink helps keep germs alive, and some studies indicate sinks are the first or second most-pathogen-concentrated areas in a restroom.

5. Sanitary-napkin dispensers. A survey released by the American Society of Microbiology found that the outside lids of a typical sanitary-napkin receptacle are among the most contaminated spots in the ladies’ room.

Addressing The Problem

According to Dancer, there are really only two ways to keep restroom surfaces (as well as all other surfaces) clean, hygienic and safe for users--effective and frequent cleaning. For effective cleaning, she recommends using scientifically evaluated cleaning products and chemicals.

For instance, some studies have found that spray-and-vac systems, also known as high-fluid-extraction systems, are more effective at removing surface contaminants than more conventional systems, such as traditional mops, microfiber flat mops, and microfiber/terry cloth cloths. And as to frequency, instead of cutting back on cleaning, as has occurred in the United States for the past five decades, the frequency needs to be increased substantially. Dancer suggests some restroom areas may need to be cleaned three or more times per day, depending on use and other factors.

In addition, because sanitary-napkin receptacles are such a problem area, some facilities have turned to hygiene services. These organizations install touchless, foot- or sensor-operated disposal units, which technicians replace with cleaned and sanitized units on a set schedule. “These sanitized units tend to be safer, not only for users but for cleaning professionals as well,” says Calvert. “Essentially, they break the chain of cross-contamination.”

The Importance Of Hand-Washing

Even if facility managers incorporate more effective cleaning, increase cleaning frequencies, employ hygiene services, and take other measures to make restrooms more hygienic, all can be lost if users, including restroom-cleaning professionals, fail to follow proper hygiene methods. “Hands should be washed using soaps and solutions at approximately 100 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 20 seconds,” says Jim Glenn, CEO of Meritech, which manufactures automated hand-washing systems. “Unfortunately, many people, including cleaning professionals, simply do not clean their hands as thoroughly and as frequently as necessary. As a result, they can pass contaminants from their hands onto other surfaces and people.”

According to Glenn, “Hand washing is just as important as proper and frequent cleaning of these [restroom surface] sites.” Because of this, some facilities have automated cleaning to make it more thorough, convenient and fast.

Touch-free hand-washing systems wash, sanitize, and rinse hands using non-alcohol disinfecting solutions in as little as 10 seconds. These systems kill nearly 100 percent of pathogens present on hands, protecting the cleaning worker and preventing cross-contamination.

Ultimately, keeping public restrooms clean, healthy and hygienic comes down to education--for both users and cleaning professionals. Knowing that the problem exists, where it exists, and how to handle it is key. As Dancer says, “We just need to be more clever [than the germs], knowing which sites need cleaning, with what frequency … and how to protect ourselves in the process.”