Several years ago I was sitting in a Pei Wei with my then girlfriend, Joyce, when she looked up from her General Tso’s chicken and said, “You left the toilet seat up again last night.”
Thinking she meant this only as an observation, I decided to respond with a little bit of improvised theory on the matter.
“You know,” I said, “I think it should be the other way around: Women should have to put the seat down for themselves, then put it back up when they’re done. The reason being: Women don’t have to touch their genitals when peeing, and men do. Therefore, to keep us from transferring bacteria and other problematic microbes from the toilet seat to our,” I lowered my head and gestured at my food.
“Asian fusion?” she said.
“No. What? Noodles.”
Joyce nodded. “Oh.”
“And therefore,” I continued. “It would be helpful if we didn’t have to touch the seat before urinating.”
Chewing her food, she remained silent for a second before taking a sip of water, then wiping her mouth.
“I wouldn’t make a habit of it,” she said. Then promptly moved on to other matters at hand.
A coup de toilet
Though it may have begun as an offhand comment to something I’d dangerously mistaken as an offhand comment, this “theory” became somewhat of a rallying cry for me over the next few years—with each successive girlfriend and then when I took a job as a cashier at Victoria’s Secret. If having one girl complain about me leaving the seat up was a lot, I was unprepared to listen to 30 women complain about it—even after I’d kindly explained my logic. (This is a story for later.)
Now, though, I’m experiencing push-back like I’ve never seen before, namely because I moved in with my girlfriend a few months ago, and even when I try to explain it nicely, she has NO FREAKING DESIRE TO LEAVE THE TOILET SEAT UP FOR ME.
That’s at least how the air feels when I try to explain it: an all-caps silence that says, “WELL ANYWAYS. MOVING ON.”
Time to turn to science
Tired of not getting through to her, I decided to reach out to an expert who hopefully could either validate my theory, or completely shoot it to shit—either way allowing me to triumphantly, or very quietly, move on with my life.
The expert I first turned to was Dr. David Coil, a project scientist in the Eisen Lab at the University of California-Davis, and a microbiologist who made waves last year by publicly declaring, “I’d rather lick a toilet seat than a cell phone.”
Personally, I’d rather lick an ice cream cone, but I admired his zeal as an anti-germophobe, and felt he’d give an honest response to my theory—even if I didn’t want it. I connected with him via Twitter, first, then sent him what can only be called a spirited email.
So my argument is this, I wrote. By having to put the toilet seat up before peeing, therefore touching it, men are exposing themselves and their penises (by way of transferring bacteria from the hands to the genitals) to potentially harmful microbes. What’s your thought on this?
I hit send and held my breath. It was now or never.
“I don’t think this is worth worrying about,” he wrote back a few hours later. “In general you don’t want to put your hands in your mouth after they’ve been exposed to bacteria. Touching the skin on your penis is probably not any more likely to result in infection than any other skin-to-skin contact during the day.”
Damn it, I thought. Not what I wanted to hear. But also not quite ready to give up, I took a different tack, trying instead to at least get him to sympathize with me as a man.
What’s your opinion on the whole “you left the toilet seat up” debate, then? I wrote. Would you consider using this argument on your wife/girlfriend/partner? It would work really well for you: “I am a microbiologist, you know.”
“Here’s my take on the whole seat discussion,” he responded. “When you flush the toilet, it sends aerosol droplets into the air which can carry fecal bacteria an amazing distance. Again, the risk of actually getting sick this way is probably quite small, but still: This would argue that best practice is to always flush with the seat cover down. In which case the appropriate default state of any toilet should be seat down and seat cover down.”
Fine. Have it your way.
Like anyone who’s been told they need dental work, or $4000 worth of auto repair, I profusely thanked Dr. Coil, then immediately sprinted to a get second opinion. I also wanted to get a woman’s take on the matter—just in case, by some act of God or Darwin or 4th Wave Feminism, she supported my claims. And this is how I ended up in the office of Dr. Jennifer Thomas, a microbiologist at Belmont University who specializes in the study of sexually transmitted diseases, specifically HPV.
I’d heard of Dr. Thomas for years as a biology student at Belmont. She was the professor who brought plush toy versions of all the STDs to class when she was teaching on the subject. I always admired her for doing this, namely because it meant her children probably grew up playing with them (they did), and she could use such phrases as, “Great story to tell you about my oldest daughter and syphilis.” Which is a real comment she left on the rough draft of this story.
As I looked at Dr. Thomas, still in her white lab coat from class, HIV grinned up at me from her desk.
“Students always ask about toilet seats and STDs,” she said. “For the most part, it’s just not going to be transmitted that way. That’s become a common excuse because people don’t want to fess-up to the activities they’ve really taken part in.”
“So then you would say that, my theory, which I have posed for many years as being legitimate, isn’t…legitimate?” I choked. “It doesn’t matter?”
“No, I don’t think that it would matter. If you’re talking about microbes that could infect the genitals, no. I just can’t think of anything that could be transmitted on your hands in general, everyday contact that then you touch your genitals and you’ve got some infection. I mean really the only pathogenic microbes that are going to thrive in the genital tract are going to be STDs. And they are very particular. They usually need a warm and/or moist environment. They’re not going to be hanging around a cold, dry toilet seat.”
Here she paused, wondering aloud the lifespan of STDs on cold, dry surfaces. Influenza, she said, can last between 2-8 hours in such an environment, though it’s mostly transmitted via respiratory droplets. STDs, though, she wasn’t sure.
She did a little more research and emailed me about a month later.
“I am hard-pressed to find any studies that are specific about exact time,” she wrote. “Most just say that they live ‘not very long’ on hard surfaces and say that are ‘very unlikely’ to be transmitted via a toilet seat, for example. Sex toys, however, can help spread STDs if they are shared, (presumably in a short period of time).”
And with that, my theory was basically sunk.
What to take away from this I’ll give you in bullet points:
- Bacteria you’ll most often find around a toilet, per Dr. Thomas: From the skin: Staphylococcus epidermidis. From the feces: E. coli. “But all of those bacteria are very beneficial to the person.”
- What most germophobe stories are missing, per Dr. Coil: “There are two major pieces of information missing in these ‘my cellphone/toilet/playground/keyboard/whatever is covered in bacteria’ stories. First is a comprehensive survey of what is actually there. Since the vast majority of bacteria in the world are neutral or helpful from a human health perspective, it really matters what kind of bacteria. And even in the much smaller subset of studies that have found some sort of potential pathogen, we still don’t know if there’s actually a health risk. For example, I could go into my garden and probably find some sort of potentially pathogenic bacteria…yet I’m out there every day and never get sick. That’s not a risk. Also note that I say ‘potential pathogen’, because often bacteria are classified to say a species. But some strains of that species may be pathogenic and others not.”
- If you were to catch something from a bathroom, what might it be? Per Dr. Thomas: “Let’s say that somebody had a diarrheal kind of infection, where they’re making a lot of diarrhea. If it’s caused by a bacterium or even a virus, there’s the possibility that a person could touch the surfaces, and then touch their mouth. That’s the part we have to think about: The ingesting of those microbes. Again, though, your body can fight off a small dose of this and still likely be fine.”
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