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Study On Spread of Covid19 Through Toilet Flushes Sparks Internet Frenzy

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Jun 23, 2020

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Image Credit: Hitesh Sonar for The Swaddle/Getty Images

A new study has found that flushing toilets with the lids up could propel a plume of spray out of the toilet bowl that can spread infections like Covid19, whose traces are known to be present in fecal matter of infected individuals.

The study, by scientists from the Yangzhou University in China, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics of Fluids earlier this month. Through computer modeling, the researchers found that upon flushing without shutting the lid of the toilet, the strong turbulence generated within the bowl causes aerosol particles to be expelled into the air up to three feet, which could lead to large-scale virus spread. However, this is not the first time a study has established this route of transmission for bacterial and viral infections. But, this is probably the first time, courtesy the ongoing Covid19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the globe, that the findings have generated Twitter hysteria — even though the research doesn’t prove fecal transmission of Covid19; it merely denotes the possibility of that happening.

For decades now, epidemiologists, and even dentists, have been warning people about the ramifications of flushing toilets without closing the lids. “Yes, you’re probably scrubbing poop particles all over your pearly whites,” USA Today wrote in 2017. “You get a good spray out of the toilet area. When droplets come out of the toilet, it looks like the Fourth of July,” Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and Professor of Virology at the University of Arizona, had explained in 2018.


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This occurs due to a phenomenon known as ‘toilet plume,’ which refers to the dispersal of microscopic particles as a result of flushing a toilet: aerosol droplets sprayed due to the flushing can mix with the air of the bathroom, with larger droplets settling on to surfaces around the toilet and contaminating them. A study published as early as 1975 in the Journal of Applied Microbiology had found that the size of these aerosol particles was capable of reaching the lower respiratory tract of humans, which could lead to various bacterial and viral infections. More recently, a 2015 study found that while modern-day, low-flow toilets create relatively smaller clouds of germs, the aerosol effect is still present.

Of course, closing the lid is the best strategy. But, in addition, “Make sure your cups and toothbrushes are tucked away,” Philip Tierno, a microbiologist at New York University, told Business Insider in 2016. As for public toilets that rarely have functional lids, his advice was: “Exit at the time of the flush.”

But, these countless studies and advice-columns on toilet plume had gone ignored for years until the pandemic, finally, made people sit up and take notice — with the warning from the small Chinese study being amplified by media outlets, as well as social media, across the globe.

Better late than never.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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