toilet plumes

As I get the Reader, the column on Charles Gerba and aerosols getting everything in your bathroom dirty leaves out one thing. He was probably doing his test with powerful siphon jet flushometers (you know, Sloan Royal’s) in commercial bathrooms. I doubt if this is true of ordinary washdown toilets in homes.
I realize that many people online don’t have access to this column yet as it is in the April 16 Chicago Reader

No, in his article (Applied Microbiology, Aug. 1975, p.229-237), he says “standard household tank or valve toilets were used.” BTW, Prof. Gerba has since sent me a “time lapse photograph of a toilet flush at bowl level,” and his description of it as looking like a rocket attack over Baghdad at night is as advertised.
[Note: This message has been edited by Cecil Adams

Master – I’m on your staff, so I’m obedient and subservient and all that, but I gotta say, this column grossed me out entirely. Not only can I never walk into a bathroom again without becoming nauseated, I can never even use a kitchen sink. So what’s the answer? Dig a hole in the backyard? (Been there, done that.)

[[Master – I’m on your staff, so I’m obedient and subservient and all that, but I gotta say, this column grossed me out entirely. Not only can I never walk into a bathroom again without becoming nauseated, I can never even use a kitchen sink. So what’s the answer? Dig a hole in the backyard? (Been there, done that.)]]

Easy CK. Don’t flush the toilet.

As tempting as it is to disinfect like crazy when you hear stories like that of the toilet aerosol or the fecal-contaminated dishcloth and laundry room, it may be less dangerous to live with it. When a relative – a lifetime nonsmoker --was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, she was asked, “Do you use chlorine bleach to clean the house?” The question, incidentally, came from one of the country’s top cancer specialists.

Could you respond to this? Is chlorine bleach a deadly enough carcinogen that
we shouldn’t even be using it at all?

To the first-

“Not only can I never walk into a bathroom again without becoming nauseated, I can never even use a kitchen sink. So what’s the answer? Dig a hole in the backyard?”

Uhh…close the lid, BEFORE you flush.

To the second-

“Is chlorine bleach a deadly enough carcinogen that we shouldn’t even be using it at all?”

Chlorine bleach, Chlorox; or, as we like to call it in the chemical world, Sodium Hypochlorite is great stuff. Nothing better to kill the nasty microscopic beasties in your bathroom. NaOCl is a strong oxidizer. Many people believe that there is a link between anti-oxidants and cancer prevention or even longevity (thanks Mr. Pauling). There is a definate link between the production of oxidizers (peroxides and the like) within a cell and chromosomal damage leading to cell death or perhaps mutation (a.k.a. cancer). So, perhaps. this researcher has a belief that breathing a strong oxidant like chlorox can lead to lung cancer.

Life’s a crap shoot, roll the dice.

Just wait a minute here:

<In 1975 Professor Gerba published a scientific article describing the little-known phenomenon of bacterial and viral aerosols due to toilet flushing. The more you learn about it, the scarier it sounds. According to Gerba, close-up photos of the germy ejecta look like “Baghdad at night during a U.S. air attack.” >

U.S. air attack on Baghdad… In 1975?

Hey Cece, I know you said you got a new photo, but to me, the above sentence is a logical sommersault.

Oh, and BTW, in my country, Sweden, where cleanliness is higher than most other European countries (the French are DIRTY), the percentage of grade-school kids is also the highest. Fact is, many researchers here say we’re too cleanly.


I don’t know enough about the carcinogenic qualities of bleach to comment on that score, but I do know that if your sewage is handled by a septic system, you should NOT under any circumstances use bleach. Some bacteria are your friends, especially the ones in your septic tank. If you kill them, your septic system will not work and you could end up with a septic problem, which could cause far more health problems for you and your family than the mildly malignant germs in your kitchen.

Doctors and scientists may scoff at this, but I firmly believe that you must keep your body exposed to moderate amounts of bacteria and viruses so your immune system gets used to them and can handle infections. I don’t live in a sty, but nor do I frenetically disinfect my kitchen and bathroom every day, and over the past year, I’ve been sick exactly once. Granted, I’m young and healthy to begin with, but still…

I think this Dope article copped out on the subject matter, although it really got Slug going at what he’s best at. Although it threw in everything, including the kitchen sink, it sold out to only one experimenter. What ever happened to Cecil’s inhouse primary-research initiative (and biological-warfare lab) – or did he swear off bathrooms after reading of Dr. Gerba’s results?

I don’t know about those who hang out about the Dope operation, but I don’t keep my toothbrush at “[toilet] bowl level”. I refuse to believe much of microbial nature goes on above that level from simply flushing a toilet; but toilets, of even the normal household type, do vary.

It seems to me what you should’ve brought up (well, that could’ve been worded a little differently) is the aerosol, nay droplet, situation in the case of urination by standing males. This problem may vary in intensity as should exist the cleanliness of the receptacle in respect to fecal matter, but certainly one can often note droplets getting significantly above bowl level from this male prerogative, making it likely that aerosols would actually reach toothbrush-storage level. I haven’t read, however, of any society’s having consistently retrained its males away from this gender-authenticating posture of urination.

One might also note the much more serious level of the instant concern, found in the refugee camps of Albania, etc. One locally well-known, very practical engineer’s solution is buckets:

I suppose African dung beetles wouldn’t work.


When it comes to all this histeria about germs, I like George Carlin’s attitude. He said that we should not be afaid of germs. That by avoiding germs we are failing to give our immune systems the practice they need to fight off germs. You can spend your whole life paranoid about germs but, you will still get sick and die one day.

OK, “Fecal coliform,” “food poisoning” – it all sounds pretty nasty, but is it that important? I’m guessing that the skin is also a pretty good breeding ground for bacteria, and just because it sounds nasty doesn’t mean it’s worth worrying about. What I would really like to know is does this toilet aerosol cause colds and flu?

While I’m at it, another complaint: “Fifty to 80 percent of all food-borne illnesses originate in the home.” OK, but what percentage of food is eaten in the home? This statistic sounds too much like saying x% of car accidents happen within five miles of home, it’s not very informative.

Charles Gerba doesn’t do the laundry around his own house, does he? If he did, he’d know that you can’t use chlorine bleach on most fabrics, nor can you use it on printed fabric or dark colours. It’s really only limited to white and light cotton, linen and similar fabrics such as ramie. Even those fabrics will be damaged by constant use of chlorine bleach, which is ferociously corrosive, even on fabrics it doesn’t damage or destroy.</P>

Do you know where the second highest concentration of urine is in a restaurant?

The mint dish next to the cash register.

(I know this is true because I read it somewhere.)

did you know that the original formula for the popular diet drink Tab included urine and restaraunt mints.

i know that its true because i read it somewhere.

see, it says it right there. thats were i read it.

70 61 74 20 74 68 65 20 67 72 65 61 74

Like jcp, I’m having trouble with the statistics given in the article. Those “6.5 million cases of gastroenteritis and 9,000 deaths” caused by food-borne pathogens – do they occur in the U.S. or in the world? If the latter, could they perhaps be concentrated in less developed countries where people don’t even have water toilets?

Also, I think the point on the usefulness of moderate exposure to bacteria and viruses to “train” your immune system (stated by Eris) is worthy of being addressed by the master himself. I think there’s a theory that allergies can be caused by lack of such exposure; if your immune system gets bored, it starts fighting imaginary enemies, so to speak.

Finally, the whole matter should probably be viewed in relation to other daily hazards: How many people get ill, injured, or killed in road traffic, through stress, due to smoking or by falling out of bed at night? Maybe those household infections don’t rank that far up on the scale of things we should worry about.


Concerning Holger’s comment about the statistics, I believe that such small numbers must be for the US only. But what isn’t said is that they concern not only toilet plumes, but all sources of food-borne pathogens, like those found in the red meat and chicken bought off-the-shelf.

What is very intriguing, coming from a country (Canada) where public health messages are broadcast avery summer to remind people to thoroughly cook their hamburgers, lest they get the “hamburger disease”, is to see the French eat the steak tartare (that’s raw hamburger meat for you). They even often add a raw egg to it. Haven’t they heard of salmonella? Are the differences in food-processing regulations between North-America and Europe so important?


Pricciar said:

“did you know that the original formula for the popular diet drink Tab included urine and restaraunt mints. i know that its true because i read it somewhere. see, it says it right there. thats were i read it.”

You know, that’s not what I had in mind when I said “put it on my tab”…

And you and andrew should know that the fastest way to draw the withering contempt of Cecil Adams is to assert something is true because you read it “somewhere.”

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

I’m a big fan of your column, but I have to say I was a little disappointed
in the recommendation to use so many chlorine products in your column on
toilet plumes. Chlorine is an extremely toxic chemical, and is listed in
the 1990 Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant. It’s also on the EPA’s
Community Right-to-Know list, and in 1993, the American Public Health
Association issued a resolution calling for the gradual phase-out of most
organochlorine compounds.

Chlorine bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, a chemical precursor to
chlorine. Any use of it will create pure chlorine in the environment.

In addition to its direct toxic effects on living organisms, chlorine also
reacts with organic materials in the environment to create other hazardous
and carcinogenic toxins, including trihalomethanes and chloroform (THMs),
and organochlorines, an extremely dangerous class of compounds that cause
reproductive, endocrine and immune system disorders. Chlorine and
chlorinated compounds are also a prime cause of atmospheric ozone loss.

When you flush your toilet or put something down the drain in Chicago, the
water that you used goes to the sewage treatment plant, and then into the
Chicago River system. While our sewage treatment system gets the water
pretty clean, a lot of organochlorine compounds remain in it. Eventually,
this water ends up in the Mississippi, and becomes the drinking water for
New Orleans and other cities. It’s interesting that a large percentage of
people (sorry, I don’t have the exact number) in New Orleans - regardless of
income level - drink bottled water.

I’ll admit a bit of a bias here - I definitely like to err on the side of
safety when it comes to household chemicals. How about a column with the
straight dope on chlorine?


Speaking for us (we?) New Orleanians, many of us do indeed drink bottled water. And after reading about the bacteria and other contaminents lurking in the spring water sources of many of the bottlers, I insist on using distilled. I even cook with it.

But just because I don’t drink the water from our national sewer system, (i.e., the Mississippi River) doesn’t mean I’m not getting a healthy dose those tasty carcinogens every day. What about when I shower? Anyone know the cumulative effects of bathing with this stuff?

(Since we’re still talking about the nasty stuff in water, I assume we’re not going too far off-topic here.)

Derek in New Orleans

About the underwear/laundry problem: when I was in the USAF, we were told that under primitive conditions (i.e. no opportunity to wash clothes, etc.) that sunlight was a very effective disinfectant. So if nothing else, at least shake out your BVD’s and hang them somewhere in the sun for a while. Works as effectively as chlorine bleach, plus it saves energy (and money) by not using the clothes dryer. My wife would much rather hang bed sheets and whatnot out to dry in the fresh air and sunshine because that makes them smell better than any clothes dryer sheet. Just another instance of convenience and labor saving devices not being as good for you as what nature provides.