How do I use a public toilet and avoid Covid-19?

Need to go while you’re on the go? Here’s how to find a public loo as lockdown eases

Flushing a toilet can generate a cloud of aerosol droplets that rises nearly three feet. Photograph: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Flushing a toilet can generate a cloud of aerosol droplets that rises nearly three feet. Photograph: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

 

We have all become much more aware of the risks of picking up infections during the Covid-19 pandemic so, as we enter a new phase of unlocking, here are some tips to keep in mind if you need to use a public toilet while out and about. 

How safe are public toilets to use?

Public toilets by definition carry greater infection risks than toilets in your home because they are used by a larger number of people whose health status is unknown. Add to this the lack of responsibility some people take over their hygiene when using these facilities. And that’s before you even consider the extra dimension of the picking up infections during a pandemic.

Are public toilets a particular risky place to pick up Covid-19?

Recent reports have drawn attention to the so-called “toilet plume” – the infectious droplets in the air that arise from a toilet after use. One study reported in the Physics of Fluids journal focused on the potential risk of infection from virus-laden faeces aside from the commonly known spread of infection through respiratory droplets. As the rate of infection of the novel coronavirus remains low in Ireland, the risk of getting infected in this way also remains low; however, flushing the toilet with the lid down (using toilet paper to put the lid down rather than your bare hands) before use and waiting a minute before using the toilet is an extra precaution you can take to avoid all kinds of bugs.

What other precautions should I take when using public toilets?

Avoid touching any surface with your bare hands while you are using the toilet.  Open the toilet door with a tissue and then throw that tissue in the toilet. Put the lid of the toilet down after using it before flushing. Stand away from a toilet that has an automatic flusher. And, most importantly of all, wash and dry your hands thoroughly after using the toilet. Some experts also recommend wearing a face mask to prevent exposure to infectious droplets in and around public toilets. Avoid touching your face until you have washed and dried your hands.

Are some public toilets safer than others?

Local authorities and shopping centres have new hygiene protocols around public toilets in the past few weeks. Dublin City Council has installed new sets of public toilets outside the St Stephen’s Green shopping centre in Dublin 2 and in Wolfe Tone Square in Dublin 1, which are managed by a cleaner and a security guard daily from 10am to 8pm. Since they have been installed, they have been used over 1,000 times a day. In Dundrum Town Centre, only every second toilet cubicle, urinal and sink is in use. If queues form, toilets are closed off and customers are directed to toilets on other levels of the shopping centre.

Are public toilets in shopping centres safer than on-street public toilets?

This is debatable as it depends on how often the toilets are cleaned and the social distancing and hygiene measures observed by users of these facilities. However, one thing is clear, toilets with multiple stalls (as opposed to one single public toilet) which are not all in constant use allow users to choose a toilet that has been free for a longer time, thus reducing the risk of picking up an infection from someone who has just stepped out of the toilet. Toilets with windows create an extra air flow, which also reduces the risk of infection.

What about toilets in pubs, restaurants and cafes?

Pubs, cafes and restaurants have been advised to have a clear queueing system in place, so that social distancing measures are observed. Toilets must be cleaned at least twice a day. Soap, hand sanitiser dispensers and disposable tissue dispensers must be regularly checked, cleaned and maintained.

Use of toilets in bars, cafes and restaurants is at the discretion of the owner/manager of the premises. However, some owners/managers may require contact details of those who use the toilets for the purposes of contact tracing should an outbreak of Covid-19 be traced back to that particular bar or restaurant.

How can I avoid using a public toilet?

Go the toilet just before you leave your home and limit the fluids you consume while out and about.

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