Study finds that flushing could release virus-laden ‘toilet plumes’ into the air

In the age of the coronavirus pandemic and amid all the precautions one must take to help contain the spread of the virus, new research indicates we should also probably close the lid before we flush, too.

Scientists have found that flushing a toilet can generate a plume of virus-containing aerosol particles that is widespread and can linger in the air long enough to be inhaled by others. 

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Recent studies have shown evidence of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in fecal matter, which raises the possibility that the virus could be transmitted though the use of shared toilets.

Researchers behind a new study, published June 16 in the journal Physics of Fluids, used computer modeling of a toilet flushing mechanism. It showed that when water pours into the toilet from one side and strikes the opposite side, it creates a vortex and displaces air in the bowl — which can contain fecal matter. 

These vortexes move upward above the toilet, carrying droplets to a height of nearly 3 feet where they might be inhaled or settle onto surfaces. The study found that the tiny droplets can float in the air for more than a minute. 

And depending on the number of inlets in the toilet, researchers found that flushing can force anywhere from 40% to 60% of aerosol particles into the air above the toilet seat.

“One can foresee that the velocity will be even higher when a toilet is used frequently, such as in the case of a family toilet during a busy time or a public toilet serving a densely populated area,” said co-author Ji-Xiang Wang, of Yangzhou University.

The researchers say one solution to this problem is to simply close the lid before flushing, since this would decrease aerosol spread. But in many countries, including the U.S., toilets in public restrooms don’t always have lids. 

The study authors also recommended cleaning the toilet seat before using it, since floating virus particles could have settled on its surface, and washing hands carefully after flushing.

They also suggested a better toilet design, in which the lid is automatically put down before flushing and cleaned before and after flushing.

“Toilets are a daily necessity but also become dangerous if used improperly, especially against the current scenario of a global pandemic,” the study authors concluded.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.