It’s the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and boy have we seen some shit. In addition to at least 118,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, nearly 2.2 million people testing positive for it, and the countless others who probably-maybe had it, we’re also dealing with having basic public health measures turned into a political issue (we’re looking at you, anti-maskers). Throw in video footage of an African-American man being murdered by the police and subsequent nationwide demonstrations against that incident of racial injustice — on top of the countless others from the past 400 years that weren’t caught on tape — and it’s a recipe for everything from anxiety and moral fatigue, to collective trauma and grief. Some might even call it a shitshow.
And, staying true to its mission of testing each and every one of us, 2020 has now dumped it’s next challenge — this time in the form of fecal matter plumes that could spread COVID. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: poop particles hanging out in the air. Here’s what you need to know about these plumes, and how to safely use the restroom, both in your home and in public.
What’s a fecal matter plume?
These poop clouds weren’t discovered in 2020. In fact, we’ve known about them — and their potential to spread infectious diseases — since at least 1906. (Even going back to the 1880s, people thought that “sewer gases” could rise through the pipes and out through a toilet, making people sick. This theory was later discredited, but you can kind of see how the Victorians were on the right track.) Anyway, a fecal matter plume forms when someone flushes a toilet after making a solid contribution and doesn’t close the lid, sending a contaminated cloud into the air. So if someone has warned you about keeping your toothbrush in your home bathroom, that’s why. And again, this is all stuff we knew pre-COVID.
The talk about coronavirus and these shit sprays started back in February (including in Rolling Stone), when the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention published research indicating that people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 had the live virus in their stool samples, confirming this as a possible way of it spreading. For the next few months, most of the concern was over fecal-oral transmission — the highlight of which was the guidelines the New York City Department of Health put out warning of the dangers of rim jobs (among other sexual acts).
Then, more research came out of China earlier this week, further solidifying this connection. Published in the journal Physics of Fluids, the study found that 40 to 60 percent of the aerosolized poop particles from a flush can ascend past the bowl and three feet into the air. Once it’s there, it can stick around long enough so that the toilet’s next user breathes it all in, and it can land on different surfaces in the bathroom. But(t), the researchers still aren’t quite sure how much of the infectious virus actually ends up in the plume, or whether you can get sick just from breathing them in. Doctors — or anyone who has experienced the diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting that comes with some cases of COVID-19 — could tell you that there’s definitely some sort of connection between the virus and our gastrointestinal tract. So we know it’s down there and that we can take viral dumps that can cause droplets of dung to rise from the toilet when we flush. But we’re still not sure to what extent — if any — these plumes can actually transmit the virus. Thankfully, we do know about some strategies that could make us safer.
How can we protect ourselves in bathrooms at home and in public?
The good news is that there’s a highly effective way of preventing that poopy plume from floating up from the throne: Shut the lid. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done once we leave our own homes. At home, not only can you shut the lid, but you also know the last person who cleaned the high-touch fixtures and surfaces, and have some control over the whole thing (including using products you know will kill the virus). That is definitely not the case with public restrooms, which typically don’t have toilets with lids and may not be serviced very often.
All of this might sound daunting, we know. When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go — poop clouds or not. But there are ways of minimizing your potential risk, even when using public facilities. For starters, since this new study came out, several infectious disease experts have said that they were more concerned about viral particles that land on flat surfaces in restrooms than the actual plumes themselves. Given that public restrooms don’t always have the best ventilation, the contamination from the aerosolized poop could build up in high-touch spots like the counters, faucets, hand dryers, paper towel dispensers, and door handles, potentially sticking around for a few hours, or a few days.
Ultimately, we’ll need some sort of redesign or reimagining of public restrooms (or at least some sort of lid), but until then, it’s up to us to take precautions. One way to do this is by practicing social distancing as much as it is physically possible. “It can be harder to maintain physical distance when using public restrooms, especially in a crowded setting,” Dr. Susan Amirian, a research scientist at the Texas Policy Lab, told Vox’s Recode. “Some facilities with public restrooms have taped off middle sinks or taken other measures to keep people from standing too close to each other.” Others have marked off where you should stand in line to keep a safe distance from your fellow toilet-goers.
After four months of this pandemic and constant PSAs from your local health department and Sesame Street, you should know that all of this is yet another reason to thoroughly and frequently wash your damn hands — both in public and private. And skip the hand dryer: this can whip up and recirculate any lingering plumes.
Oh, and if you’re in public, you absolutely should be wearing a face mask. While it’s unclear exactly how much protection it can offer from these menacing indoor clouds, honestly, anything that can come between your mouth and air containing particles that originated in the butts of strangers is probably a good idea.