- A new video of the toilet plume phenomenon aims to reduce health risks in public restrooms.
- Until now, scientists knew that toilets emit aerosols, but they couldn’t see it.
- These aerosols can transmit infectious diseases and spread pathogens present in feces.
- The researchers hope that the experiment will provide “a consistent method for testing improved plumbing design.”
A stunning new video of bright green “toilet plume” particles sheds light on an invisible phenomenon that’s easy to ignore, but might deserve more of your attention.
University of Colorado Boulder engineers are studying the spread of fecal pathogens and the health risks associated with flushing pointed laser lights into a lidless public toilet, the same type commonly used in public restrooms in North America, to illuminate tiny, fast-spreading water droplets.
“We were expecting these aerosol particles to kind of float, but they came out like a rocket,” said Professor John Crimaldi, lead author of the study and head of the Environmental Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at CU Boulder. “Once you watch these videos, you will never think about toilet flushing the same way again.”
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The video shows how far and how fast the particles fly when washing
Until now, no one understood what airborne particles look like above flushing toilets and how they land on surrounding surfaces.
In what a school news release called a “spur of the moment” experiment published in the journal Scientific Reports Dec. 8, the research “created a sensation,” providing the “first direct visualization” of the plume.
The researchers hope the study will lead to improved disinfection and ventilation strategies, or toilet and flush designs.
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Research published in 2013 by the University of Oklahoma and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that fecal matter, along with many pathogens and water particles, can leach into the air and onto surfaces after flushing an uncovered toilet. Understanding the way these particles move is important to reduce the risk of exposure to pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Clostridium difficile, norovirus, and adenoviruses.
The goal of the study, Crimaldi said, was to capture dramatic images of these smaller particles, which are dangerous because they float in the air for longer, and can easily escape the hairs of one’s nose and reach deep into one’s lungs.
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Where do toilet particles go after flushing?
The energetic airborne particles from the column produced unpredictable motions, but mostly moved upward, rising to the laboratory ceiling, moving backward toward the back wall, and outward, and spreading forward from the ceiling into the room.
“We show that this thing is a much more active and rapidly spreading plume than even the people who knew about this understood,” Crimaldi said. “The goal of a toilet is to effectively remove waste from the bowl, but it also does the opposite, which is to spray a lot of the contents up.”
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Should you close the toilet lid when you flush?
A 2021 review of aerosol generation in public restrooms published at the American Institute of Physics found that closing the lid resulted in reduced but not completely removed bacteria from air samples, indicating that droplets could still escape between the toilet lid and the seat. .
“This highlights the need to incorporate adequate ventilation into the design and operation of public spaces,” the newspaper reported.
While the results of the University of Colorado research may be alarming, Crimaldi said, “The study provides experts in plumbing and public health a consistent way to test improved plumbing design, disinfection and ventilation strategies, in order to reduce the risk of exposure to pathogens in public restrooms.”
Camille Fine is a popular visual producer on the USA TODAY NOW staff.
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