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Should You Worry About the Toilet Plume?

Physicists say flushing could create a toilet plume that could carry virus particles. The CDC says it has no reports of transmission from a toilet.
Should You Worry About the Toilet Plume?
Modern high tech toilet with electronic bidet in Japan. Industry leaders recently agreed on signage standards for Japanese toilet bowls.

If you have done any traveling over the past few years, you may have noticed some welcome changes in airport bathrooms. Many are now equipped with sensors that turn on the water faucets automatically. You don’t have to touch the tap. The paper towels roll down when you wave your hand in front of the dispenser. In addition, most of the toilets flush by themselves when you stand up to walk away. There’s just one more thing we could wish to make public toilets less likely to spread germs: automatic toilet lids that close to trap the toilet plume that can be kicked up with a flush. 

Is the Toilet Plume a Problem?

Q. I recently read that a “toilet plume” could carry COVID-19 viral particles into the air and that public restrooms are especially risky because the toilets have no lids.

I have been concerned about this possibility for years. So even at home, I cover the toilet with newspaper, close the lid and then flush the toilet. I throw the newspaper in the garbage before I wash my hands thoroughly. You will be surprised how damp the newspaper gets from just one flush.

Physicists Warn About Flushing:

A. Physicists recently modeled the behavior of fluids when a toilet is flushed and warned about the toilet plume (Physics of Fluids, June 16, 2020).  They found that a fine mist could rise up to three feet above the toilet. Consequently, they recommend closing the lid before flushing.

We know that infected people shed SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in their stool (Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, May 2020). In a public restroom, this could create a transmission risk.

The CDC suggests that you don’t really need to close the lid, however. The agency has received no confirmed reports of anyone catching COVID-19 from a flushing toilet.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Li Y-Y et al, "Can a toilet promote virus transmission? From a fluid dynamics perspective." Physics of Fluids, June 16, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1063/5.0013318
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