Can you catch the coronavirus from a flushing toilet?

can you get coronavirus from a toilet
Photo via Håkan Dahlström/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of all the ways COVID-19 can be spread, there is one way which is talked of far less often: flushing the toilet. No amount of hand sanitizer, hand washing, or surface cleaning can pull aerosolized particles of fecal matter containing the COVID-19 virus from the air. It’s hard to combat, but according to Harvard University’s Joseph G. Allen, it’s worth more attention, because, yes, you can get coronavirus from a toilet.

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Allen wrote that COVID-19 can be detected in stool samples for several weeks, and one method of tracking outbreaks that is growing in popularity is actually sampling wastewater. Allen has a much kinder word for the fecal matter which is aerosolized by the pressure and churning of water as a toilet is flushed— he calls them “bioaerosols.”

When these particles are churned into the air, one of four things can happen. They move throughout the space by circulation, and they settle on surfaces. They then are removed by filtration in HVAC systems, or they are removed from the air by being breathed into the lungs. 

For those who worry about whether it’s safe to use a public restroom, none of this is great news. 

To reduce the spread of coronavirus via toilet flushing, though, Allen suggested a few ideas:

  • If your bathroom has an exhaust fan, turn it on when entering the room and leave it on when you’re done to pull through any bioaerolsols. 
  • Close the toilet lid when flushing.
  • Don’t go into a bathroom if it smells bad, as Allen writes that this is a signal the room has not been exhausted properly. 
  • Clean any surfaces which may have been exposed to the bioaerosols and wash your hands thoroughly. 

Research suggests that the virus may survive the acidity of the digestive tract if viral bodies bind with mucosal membranes which coat different organs in the tract, such as the stomach and intestines. However, it is unclear whether they can infect a host once they are released as bioaerosols in a toilet flush. 

While the spread of coronavirus by toilet aerosols may be unlikely, unlikely is not impossible, and health experts still recommend thorough hand washing and the cleaning of public restrooms. 

Sources: National Geographic, CNN, Washington Post

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