Many managers, as well as park and recreation users, believe that germs, bacteria and viruses are lurking just about everywhere in public restrooms–including toilets, doors, faucets and urinal handles. Some have even gone as far as placing placards in restrooms, encouraging users to “use a paper towel when opening and closing doors,” all in the interest of protecting public health.
While it is true that a wide variety of germs and bacteria–including staphylococcus, E. coli, hepatitis A and the many viruses that cause the common cold–can be found in park restrooms, it is a myth that they are everywhere, just waiting to attack us. And it should not be forgotten that if park users are healthy and have strong immune systems, they are relatively safe as long as they remember to wash their hands.
However, to dispel our own fears as well as those of park users, it is worthwhile to understand which areas of park restrooms are most likely to house potentially harmful germs and bacteria. Hopefully, not only will this allay some fears, but it will also allow managers and cleaning professionals to concentrate on those areas of the restroom that need the greatest attention.
Germs, She Wrote
From 1984 to 1996 actress Angela Lansbury starred in the television series Murder, She Wrote, playing Jessica Fletcher, a famous mystery writer, who had an uncanny knack for solving murders. Every week Ms. Fletcher solved another mystery by eliminating suspects until the guilty party was revealed at the end of the show. In the same way, park managers and cleaning professionals must become their own “Jessica Fletchers” when it comes to finding potentially harmful microorganisms.
For instance, ask park visitors which restroom fixture they are most concerned about carrying germs and disease, and they will most likely say the toilet seat. However, studies indicate that the toilet seat is not a common vehicle for transmitting diseases in park restrooms. Many of the potentially dangerous germs that survive on toilet seats have a short life span once the germs are outside the body. For these microorganisms to cause health problems, they must live for considerably long periods of time. They also need to enter the body through a cut or sore on the buttocks. Fortunately, this tends to be less a problem in that area than on other parts of the body.
Another common misconception is that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be caught from toilet seats. According to Dr. Abigail Salyers, president of the American Society of Microbiology, “To my knowledge, no one has [ever] acquired an STD from a toilet seat.”
Cold germs, on the other hand, have been discovered on toilet seats. However, as with other germs found in such locations, they tend to die rapidly outside the body. Further, doctors and researchers say a person must come into contact with a large amount of a cold virus, or any other germs or bacteria, in order to become sick.*
If toilet seats are not the most common area for germs and bacteria to hide, where are they actually found? For the answer, just look into the toilet. Germs and bacteria do reside along the rims of toilets, which is one reason these areas must be cleaned properly with disinfectants on a regular basis.
But a greater concern is that with each flush of the commode, these contaminants can become airborne. It is believed that the aerosol cloud created by a toilet’s flush can spread up to 5 feet from the fixture, transporting infectious fecal-borne bacteria onto many other restroom surfaces–including partitions, flush handles, toilet paper holders and, in women’s bathrooms, feminine-hygiene disposal containers.
In fact, according to Doug Calvert, president of Cannon Hygiene USA, a restroom hygiene services company, “These [feminine-hygiene] disposal units not only become coated with airborne germs and bacteria, but as they are used, the lids become increasingly contaminated, making these one of the most significant ‘germ-hot areas’ of park restrooms.”
A survey released by the American Society of Microbiology cited the same evidence, stating, “The outside of a sanitary-napkin receptacle is one of the most contaminated hot spots in the ladies room.” A fear of germs is, in fact, thought to be the reason why many women flush used sanitary napkins rather than place them in provided receptacles, which results in the number-one cause of plumbing problems in some facilities.
Along with the rims of toilets and feminine-hygiene disposal units, other germ-hot areas in park restrooms may include:
· Partition doors and handles
· Bathroom sinks, especially inside the bowl
· Fixture handles on faucets, toilets and urinals
· Paper-towel dispenser levers
· Door handles
· Light switches
Addressing The Problem
With the location of the germ-hot spots clarified, park managers have two courses of action:
1. Emphasize cleaning where cleaning is most needed.
2. Find more ways to minimize the number of restroom surfaces that require touching, either by users or cleaning professionals.
As the name implies, no-touch cleaning systems–also known as high-flow fluid-extraction systems–help make this possible. They work well in park facilities, and have proven to be effective at removing soils and contaminants from surfaces. A machine applies cleaning solution to surfaces where it is allowed to “dwell.” After a few minutes the same areas are rinsed, which loosens the soils and contaminants, sending them down drains. Or a machine’s wet/vac capabilities are used to thoroughly remove the contaminants from the restroom.
Additionally, a new generation of microfiber cleaning cloths may be used, often referred to as the “smart towel” system. Recent studies have found that soiled cloths (microfiber or conventional) can actually spread as many contaminants as they remove. But because the smart-towel system can be folded into eight marked quadrants, it allows cleaning professionals to use a fresh area of the towel for each use, helping to prevent the spread of infection.
“Further, managers can continue to find ways to reduce the number of surfaces that must be touched in a restroom,” adds Calvert. “For instance, because it can be so highly contaminated, turning to touchless feminine-hygiene disposal units and companies that service these on regular intervals is a significant step in making restrooms healthier and safer for users and cleaning professionals.”
* An important exception to the stated longevity of germs and bacteria outside the body is MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the bacteria that causes MRSA can live for several hours, and sometimes even days, on surfaces, depending on humidity, temperature, the amount of bacteria present and the type of surface. This is especially true if the surface is porous. However, toilet seats do not typically have a porous surface.
Beth Pullin is a writer for the professional cleaning, building and health-care industries. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Most Common Bacteria In Public Restrooms
According to one study, the five most-common bacteria found in public restrooms and the illnesses they can cause are:
· Pseudomonadaceae (urinary tract infection, blood poisoning)
· Streptococcaceae (sore throat, bronchopneumonia)
· Coryneforn (diphtheria, hepatitis)
· Micrococcaceae (boils/pimples, pustular infections)
· Enterobacteriaceae (kidney infections, typhoid/paratyphoid fever)