By Amanda Riddle
Arizona Daily Wildcat June 11, 1997
Bathroom research reveals surprising data
Now two University of Arizona researchers have found a reason for you to heed to your mother's advice: public restrooms are breeding places for disease-causing bacteria.
"Every time you go to the bathroom you're playing Russian Roulette," said Chuck Gerba, a professor of soil and water science. Gerba and his assistant, microbiology and immunology graduate student Denise Kennedy, are the first people to study public restro oms so thoroughly.
And what they found might surprise you.
While men's restrooms smell worse and contain more litter than women's restrooms, women's restrooms actually contain more fecal bacteria than men's. Fecal bacteria, found in the intestinal tract, are an indicator of the potential presence of other disease -causing organisms that shed from the intestinal tract.
Kennedy discovered a two-to-one ratio between the bacteria in women's and men's bathrooms, which means there are more bacteria in women's bathrooms to cause sickness.
"I didn't expect women's restrooms to be so much higher in bacteria than men's," Kennedy said.
She speculated that women's toilets contain more bacteria because there is a higher frequency of use.
"Women have to sit down no matter what," she said.
She also believes that women wash their hands more than men, which accounts for more bacteria in the sink area.
"When you wash your hands, bacteria falls into the sink and it lasts longer than in other areas because the sink is moist," said Kennedy, who sneaked into hundreds of public restrooms around Tucson to collect data for the project.
The study included bathrooms in shopping malls, bus stations, airports, fast food restaurants, hospitals and even the UA.
Kennedy said she could not publicly identify the bathrooms where she collected data because she did not ask permission to collect samples. She said many of the proprietors would not appreciate what she found.
She did discover that the safest place to use a public restroom is at a hospital, where bathrooms contained the least amount of bacteria. Avoid using the bathroom in bus stations, which contained the most bacteria, she said.
Kennedy began the project in September 1995, after she started graduate school.
"The subject appeals to everyone," she said. "Everyone can relate and understand it."
For almost two years Kennedy has worked with Gerba. Her leg work consisted of wiping cotton swabs on the top of toilet seats, the bottom of toilet seats, on the floor in front of toilets, in sink basins and on sink taps. Then she brought her samples to th e lab to be analyzed.
In addition to the fecal bacteria, Kennedy and Gerba also found salmonella, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning, diarrhea and typhoid fever, in the sink area of one in every 10 restrooms. She said the sink area was a hot spot for the bacteria because it is wet - giving the bacteria a better chance to survive and grow.
Sinks are also more likely than toilet seats to harbor E-coli bacteria, Kennedy discovered. E-coli lives in the intestine and some strains are toxic, although Kennedy did not distinguish between the strains she found.
Gerba said the study comes at a time when microorganisms, which include bacteria, are causing more deaths in the United States than ever before.
"Microorganisms have increased from the fifth leading cause of death to the third, behind heart attacks and cancer," he said.
Gerba attributed the rise to an increasing contamination of our food supply from an increase in food production and an increase in imported food, and an increase in adults over the age of 65.
With the rise in deaths from disease-causing bacteria, there is also more public awareness and concern.
Eighty percent of adults in the United States now know about salmonella, he said.
Although Gerba and Kennedy determined there is some risk of catching a disease from the bacteria present in restrooms, they do not yet know how high that risk is.
"In the future we are going to quantitate it," Gerba said.
Determining the risk will hopefully find answers to the questions raised by his research, such as: Is it worth taking more precautions, like using more disinfectant or installing touchless toilets, to protect Americans from these diseases?
But both Gerba and Kennedy use public restrooms themselves, and they do not want to cause a public scare with their research.
"This adds to the fear," Kennedy said. "But we've lived with these things forever."
She said the best advice for anyone who uses public restrooms is to avoid busy bathrooms that appear dirty or have standing water.
Kennedy and Gerba found bathrooms with one stall, or more than three, contained the most bacteria, possibly because they had the most traffic.
Kennedy also gave advise for bathroom procedures.
"Wash your hands and try not to touch the inside of the sink basin," she said.
She also advised people to use a paper towel when turning off faucets and opening the bathroom door.
Although his unglamorous research has produced some startling results, Gerba said he doubts more microbiologists will grab cotton swabs and head into the bathroom.
"We know more about the microcosm of the moon than we do of our own house," he said. "It's not a type of area you get a federal grant on."