Friday, March 27, 2015

Rears and Fears: Basic toilet seat logic

The click-bait video of the week ("First I thought it was a normal toilet... but when he flushes it I was left speechless") is this self cleaning invention:

This speaks to the thing I find most fascinating in the world of sanitation: how people (often misguidedly) choose where to focus their innovation energy based on societal perception.

This is not the first product to champion the idea of a sterile toilet seat. Any woman who grew up in North America will be familiar with the waxy toilet seat protectors available in most public rest rooms. Some are so in the habit of using these that if they aren't available, miles of toilet paper will be sacrificed to the cause of covering the seat to prevent any skin contact.** Chicago International Airport takes the cover a step further by providing a rotating plastic cover that goes round with each flush.

To give the public due respect, it's not hard to see how a path of logic lead to the need for these things. The average person might go through the following list of assumptions:
1) I've been told that Pee/poo/things that go in toilets are dirty.*
2) Therefore my bottom is dirty.
3) I don't want my dirty bottom sharing the same spot as other people's dirty bottoms. 
But let's look at this logic for a moment.

Your bottom and your thighs spend most of their time shielded by clothing. At risk of getting too graphic, the bodily fluids and solids that go into the loo come out of very specific orifices, and aren't going to get all over you (You're not two years old and you can aim!) So the only thing coming into contact with the actual seat should, in fact, be one of the cleanest parts of your body. WebMD says: "Many disease-causing organisms can survive for only a short time on the surface of the seat, and for an infection to occur, the germs would have to be transferred from the toilet seat to your urethral or genital tract, or through a cut or sore on the buttocks or thighs, which is possible but very unlikely."

In other words, if you're going to catch (or spread) anything via the toilet seat, you are sitting on it very wrongly!* People love to play the "eww" factor by telling you that your cell phone, your keyboard, your tooth brush, money ... and plenty of other thing"have more bacteria than a toilet seat!" Actually, it's in all probability the seat cleanest thing in the bathroom, so that shouldn't be a surprising claim at all.

What is  far more likely to spread germs are your hands. Aside from the fact you've just wiped yourself, your hands are everywhere, touching things all the time.

Now, let's note one ironic thing about the video: The flush button still has to be pressed by hand! So whatever horrible fate the cleansing seat was going to spare you has almost certainly been re-introduced on the flush button. Studies differ, but somewhere between 1-in-3 and 1-in-5 people won't wash their hands after using the toilet. Yet we rarely see technology aimed at getting people to wash up. We don't handle money and cell phones with plastic gloves. In fact, just this past February, Republican Senator Thom Tillis stated publicly that he thought the requirement for food-service workers to wash their hands should be optional.

We're not the first generation to leap to conclusions. The toilet revolution in London in the mid-1800's was spurred on by a medical belief in miasma... the idea that disease was spread through bad air. Germ Theory was still considered something of a quack science until the 1870's. So they got one piece of the puzzle... installing a toilet got the smells (and consequentially the hazardous waste) out of the dwelling places. But they hadn't yet worked out that putting raw sewage into their water sources was still going to be a problem. It took a long and gradual development.

It will be interesting to see what toilet concerns the next generation of users brings to the table. Perhaps with California's water shortage we will be heading towards an age of waterless, low flow and re-use... one can hope! But for the moment it is hard to see such radical new solutions being compatible with the paranoia around toilet seats.

* This is a simplistic view of a rather complicated topic for another blog post.
** So deeply rooted is this fear that many women opt to hover, actually worsening the chance of making a mess! See A Brief Disquisitation on the Existence of Butt Cooties.