I owned a cleaning business for several years. I have seen some gross stuff. I have accidentally touched some gross stuff too with both gloved and naked hands.
Thankfully I don’t get too bothered by the disgusting messes humans can make—especially the ones left in the bathroom. Cleaning toothpaste from the mirror, soap and shampoo buildup in the tub, mold on shower walls, and feces and vomit lined toilet bowls were part of the job. I threw on my gloves and went to work; the before and after of cleaning a bathroom always provided a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
After a drop of dirty toilet water hit my eye while on the job one time, however, I got grossed out. And I learned very quickly that before flushing the toilet, I need to shut the lid and you do too.
Sure, I was squatting over the bowl, scrubbing and flushing it at the same time and my face was right there but even without being so close to the water, I would have been hit with the geyser-like spray that happens every time we flush a lidless or open-lid toilet. It took a fear of an eye infection for me to realize that not all that we think goes down really does.
The force of the flush causes what scientists call a “toilet plume” and it can shoot up to 15 feet in the air. What goes up must come down, and what is coming down onto your towels, floor, sink, and toothbrush are germs, infection causing bacteria, and fecal matter.
This phenomenon was discovered in the ‘50s and reported by Charles P. Gerba in his 1975 study published in Applied Microbiology. Gerba reported that one flush could send E. Coli — a harmful bacteria that causes diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever — into the air where it can remain viable for 4-6 hours.
Consider all of the subsequent open-lid flushes and you are pretty much walking into a curtain of E. Coli and brushing your teeth with a layer of Colgate and poo.
On that note, who thought it would be a good idea to keep our toothbrushes right next to the place we poop and pee? Some of us think it’s gross to eat in the bathroom—think hair, nail clippings, dead skin…that Seinfeld episode where Kramer put a garbage disposal in his shower; yet we allow ourselves the vulnerability of an unlocked, unguarded, and exposed tool that we put into our mouths twice a day. Add a kid or two, or a vindictive roommate, or an angry spouse and there are few items that leave us more defenseless than a toothbrush.
Back to the plume in case you think I am being an extremist. In 2013, the American Journal of Infection Control reported studies that confirmed the transmission of infectious diseases through feces and vomit spread through the air after a toilet flush. “The possible role of toilet plume in airborne transmission of norovirus, SARS, and pandemic influenza is of particular interest.”
Getting our partners or our kids to flush the toilet is only part of the battle. Though, at this point, finding a toilet full of one of my kid’s shit means I have the opportunity to reduce the diarrhea-causing bacterium Clostridium difficile from shooting into the air by a factor of 12, according to one study. Closing the lid after having the shits will lower your chance of continuing the shits.
Remember that story about the fecal bacteria found in hand dryers in public bathroom? That would be from the aerosolized feces from the toilets with no lids. Not only did the bacteria land in the hand dryers and then transfer to “clean” hands and onto bathroom surfaces, it traveled to other rooms in the building according to a study done University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Most public toilets are not low-flow either; they are high-powered flushers. The sound terrifies my children and if the flush happens before I am totally off of the seat, I am convinced I am hit with the force of a bidet. The toilet plume is in full bloom in public bathrooms and is magnified by multiple toilets being flushed multiple times a day. I think I will take my chances and pee on the side of the road during my next road trip.
Ever since my panicked attempt to sanitize my eye after it was doused in, well, shit, I put the lid down every time I flush the toilet. This also helps save myself from my klutzy nature. Sometimes I drop stuff, and while I have had to fish a few things out of the toilet bowl my phone hasn’t been one of them since I started to close the lid immediately after getting off of the toilet. You can stop judging me now. I know you scroll while taking a shit too.
After a proper wiping, I close the lid, flush, and thoroughly wash my hands. I’d like to say I also give my phone a proper wipe down, but I am far from perfect.
Just because you can’t see dirty doesn’t mean it isn’t there. But I promise you that no one is immune to the toilet plume and the invisible particles of poop raining down on your bathroom surfaces when you don’t close the lid when you flush.
For the love of God, shit shut the lid.