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Public Restrooms: Not as Unhealthy as You Might Think

Research done at San Diego State University found that public restrooms are no more healthy or unhealthy than the bathroom in your own home. The study was published online ahead of print in December 2014 in “Applied and Environmental Microbiology”.

A release from the American Society of Microbiology explains that microbial succession in a sterilized restroom begins with bacteria from the gut and the vagina, and is followed shortly by microbes from the skin. Restrooms are dominated by a stable community structure of skin and outdoor associated bacteria, with few pathogenic bacteria making them similar to other built environments such as your home.

In the study, the investigators characterized the structure, function, and abundance of the microbial community on floors, toilet seats, and soap dispensers, following decontamination of each surface. They analyzed the surfaces hourly at first, and then daily for up to eight weeks.

The release quotes corresponding author Jack A. Gilbert, , who has conducted similar studies of the home, and the hospital as saying, “We hypothesized that while enteric bacteria would be dispersed rapidly due to toilet flushing, they would not survive long, as most are not good competitors in cold, dry, oxygen-rich environments. As such, we expected the skin microbes to take over–which is exactly what we found. Reproduceable successional ecology is remarkable,” Most systems have the potential to have multiple outcomes. The restroom surfaces, though, were remarkably stable, always ending up at the same endpoint.”

Indeed, the communities associated with each surface became more similar in species and abundance within five hours following initial sterilization, and the resulting late-successional surface community structure remained stable for the remainder of the 8 weeks’ sampling. Floor communities showed a rapid reduction in abundance of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes, while the relative abundance of Proteobacteria, Cyanobacteria, and Actinobacteria declined over the course of a day. Cyanobacteria are likely derived from dietary plant biomass or from plant material tracked in from outdoors.

Toilet seat samples, alone, clustered according to restroom gender, with Lactobacillus and Anaerococcus–vaginal flora–dominating ladies’ room toilet seats, while the gut-associated Roseburia and Blautia, were more copious on toilet seats in men’s rooms.

Ultimately, skin and outdoor-associated taxa comprised 68-98 percent of cultured communities, with fecal taxa representing just 0-15 percent of these. And out-door-associated taxa predominated in restrooms prior to sterilization, as well as in long-term post-sterilization communities, suggesting that over the long term, human-associated bacteria need to be dispersed in restrooms in order to be maintained there.

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