Up or down? Is the toilet seat debate now settled?

Now we’re out circulating again, so are our germs. Here is how to stay healthy while answering the call of nature and using public toilet seats.

If you’ve ever shared a bathroom with someone of the opposite sex, you’re bound to have discussed the merits of the toilet seat being left up (if you’re a bloke) and down (everyone else).

But have you given much thought about what to do with the loo lid – especially when you’re popping into a public toilet?

It might be worth some extra consideration after a new study by the ANU and University of South Australia.

Its global review of the risks of bacterial and viral transmission found leaving the lid open while flushing can disperse contaminated droplets beyond a metre – and they can remain in the air for 30 minutes. Gross.

Toilet seats not the only risk area

Aside from considering the risks of Covid-19 transmission in bathrooms, the review analysed other infectious disease risks from public toilets in restaurants, workplaces, commercial premises and universities.

It found uncovered rubbish bins – particularly those near hand dryers – posed a risk, as did defective plumbing, in spreading infectious diseases.

Lifting the lid on toilet seats

Co-author of the paper, UniSA environmental scientist Professor Erica Donner, says many people were surprised that putting the toilet lid down was so important.

It seems a lot of people didn’t realise that that’s actually a health measure,” Prof Donner says.

Prof Donner says there’s limited evidence of Covid-19 being transmitted via public bathrooms, but they are an area rife with bacteria.

Other nasties lurking in bathrooms include gastro-intestinal viruses like noravirus, which is highly contagious and can lead to vomiting, nausea and diarrhea, particularly in children.

“A lot of different microorganisms that cause disease are shed in the faeces of infected people,” she says.

“That’s why we’ve been able to use wastewater monitoring to provide early warning of new Covid outbreaks in the community during the pandemic.

“But detecting the genetic material of the virus in an environment sample doesn’t always mean that it is still in a viable form that can cause infection.”

Where disease transmission is most likely

The review found no documented instances of airborne related infectious disease spread, but extensive evidence of faecal-oral transmission on tainted surfaces.

“The way you’re most likely going to pick (something) up is by touching a contaminated tap, or the door handle,” Prof Donner says.

Cleanliness the key to keeping safe

Luckily, if you’re following good hygiene practices, the risk of contracting any virus in a public toilet is “really, really low”, senior lecturer in infection prevention and control at Griffith University Dr Peta-Anne Zimmerman says.

Ideally, frequently touched surfaces in public toilets such as door handles will be cleaned regularly.

If not, Dr Zimmerman says there are plenty of ways to protect yourself.

“If you do touch those things, obviously perform some sort of hand hygiene, whether it’s alcohol hand gel or washing your hands,” Dr Zimmerman says.

She says people often don’t give much thought to how many things they touch a day.

“We touch things constantly, and if we’re not decontaminating our hands – for example before we touch food, or even touch our face, rub our eyes – that’s when the disease transmission can occur.”

Yoo-hoo! Don’t play with your phone on the loo

Been guilty of reading your news feed or checking your socials on your phone while on the loo?

If so, you’re best to ditch that habit, says Prof Donner, as it’s a small space and it can easily pick up bacteria.

And now that we’re finally able to have guests over, attention should also be given to bathroom hygiene practice at home.

Dr Zimmerman recommends having plenty of hand sanitiser on offer, cleaning your bathroom well and offering liquid soap for hands, rather than a bar.

And shut the loo lid while flushing, particularly if there are fabric towels hanging nearby.

Dr Zimmerman also suggests regularly swapping out hand towels.

Organisms love nice warm moist places to proliferate, and you don’t want to be washing your hands and then wiping your hands on a dirty towel.”

Written by Larissa Ham.