The UK is slowly but surely, beginning to return to some normalcy after the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been prevalent in the last few months. As of June 15, all non-essential retail shops opened to the UK public (Stephens and Penna, 2020) and by July 4th, pubs, restaurants, and large parts of the hospitality and tourism industries will reopen (Sewell, 2020). Therefore, with an increasing amount of people starting to venture out of their homes, you may have questions regarding the safety of using public bathrooms during this pandemic and the likelihood of catching COVID-19.
How hazardous are public bathrooms?
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, public bathrooms were places that could be infectious by touch and air. Before we wash our hands, we potentially contaminate things we touch with microbes that come from faecal matter, like norovirus and E. coli.
Breathing in an enclosed shared airspace could put us at risk of some airborne diseases like influenza and measles as people with these diseases can leave the air surrounding them hazardous for periods of time after they have vacated the area.
As well as general air contamination, toilet plume, the term given to the array of microbes that are thrusted into the atmosphere when the toilet is flushed, is also a more common hazard in public bathrooms. Toilet plume gives the potential for harmful microbes to then rest on the surrounding floors, toilet seats and lids and nearby surfaces (Johnson, Mead, Lynch and Hurst, 2013). Multiple people using the same space concurrently could increase the infectiousness of public bathrooms.
What is the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus?
The problem is that COVID-19 is a relatively new disease and therefore, very little research has been carried out regarding the liklehood of coming into contact with it or contracting the disease in shared bathrooms.
Contact with contaminated surfaces is not believed to be the primary method of transmission but further research is still required. Ultimately regarding COVID-19, extra vigilance is required until the correct research has been performed so we know the full extent of how it is transmitted and the likelihood in different settings (Gunter, 2020).
We outline below some of the necessary steps to help you stay safe if you need to use public restrooms.
What actions should I take to minimise risk in public bathrooms?
- If you need to go - opt for a larger public bathroom, as these have more space for air circulation and make it easier to remain at an adequate distance from other people.
- Avoid going into a bathroom stall directly after someone else – Try to leave 60 seconds to minimise the risk of toilet plume in the air and on surfaces.
- Close the lid before flushing – This will significantly reduce the amount of toilet plume.
- Use hand sanitiser to wash your hands – hand sanitiser has been proven to be more effective than soap and water.
- If available, wear sanitary gloves to avoid touching surfaces that are potentially contaminated with microbes.
- Wear a mask, to reduce risk of contracting airborne diseases.
- Try to space yourself from others using the bathroom.
Johnson, D., Mead, K., Lynch, R., & Hirst, D. (2013). Lifting the lid on toilet plume aerosol: A literature review with suggestions for future research. American Journal Of Infection Control, 41(3), 254-258. doi: 10.1016/j.ajic.2012.04.330