By Korin Miller
Toilet plume sounds like it should be the most popular DIY trend on Pinterest. Adorn that plain ol’ toilet with a collection of decorative feathers for an elevated pooping experience! Unfortunately, the actual definition of toilet plume is far less delightful.
Toilet plume is a term for what happens when the force of flushing sprays microscopic particles of pee, poop, and whatever else is in the bowl into the air. “‘[This plume] is easily transmitted in a wide range of air space when you flush the toilet,” Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Arizona who has studied toilet plume, tells SELF.
Unfortunately there’s not a wealth of research about exactly how far toilet plume can reach. One 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that microorganisms reached a vertical height of 2.7 feet after a toilet was flushed, but other information is scant. In general, Reynolds says the microbiology community’s consensus is that the spray can reach around six feet away from the toilet. That’s by no means a proven number, and a lot more research needs to be done to cement just how far toilet plume can go.
The absence of hard numbers doesn’t negate the fact that toilet plume is a thing, though. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a palatial bathroom, flushing the toilet can cover various objects—we’re talking sink tops, door handles, and even your toothbrush—in…stuff. Cue internal screaming.
Before you consider abandoning toilets and just pooping outside, know that there’s no solid proof toilet plume will make you sick.
Yes, toilet water sprays when you flush, and yes, that water contains germs. So does basically everything else on the planet. But only some germs are pathogens, i.e., disease-carrying agents that can make you ill. “Not all germs are pathogens, but all pathogens are germs,” Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells SELF. “Whether toilet plume makes people sick is controversial and not conclusively proven,” he adds. Think about it: Even if you’re only just becoming aware of toilet plume, you’ve experienced it countless times, maybe even every day, without constantly being sick as a result.
So, what does science have to say about whether toilet plume can make you sick? A 2015 review published in the American Journal of Infection Control analyzed various small studies in which researchers purposefully put certain pathogens in a toilet, flushed, and then monitored how far they went and how long they lingered. The kinds of bacteria they included can often be found in the human intestines, then come out in poop or vomit and make you sick when ingested.
One study found that E. coli, which can cause diarrhea and vomiting, lingered in the air for up to four to six hours after flushing. Another determined that salmonella, which can cause similar symptoms, lingered in the toilet bowl for 50 days after it was put in there, got aerosolized every time people flushed, and contaminated surfaces like the toilet flusher and door handle. Still another found that Clostridium difficile, which can cause fever, diarrhea, stomach pain, or even a life-threatening infection, hung out in the air above the toilet for up to 90 minutes after flushing.
This all sounds disgusting and terrifying and may make you want to spend the rest of your life bathing in disinfectant, but these researchers didn’t test whether those pathogens in the air actually infected people. This is why these studies all concluded that it’s possible to get sick from toilet plume, but not inevitable. Even if someone with, say, E. coli uses a toilet before you, you’re not necessarily going to pick up the illness. Many more studies are required to determine how likely that actually is. As of now, there’s no solid scientific evidence that toilet plume will absolutely make you get some kind of infectious illness from a toilet bowl.
This is likely because the concentration of these pathogens in the air would need to be higher in order to reliably get people sick, Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a board-certified infectious disease physician and affiliated scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. If you lick a toilet bowl, sure, you could get ill—just breathing in the plume or touching things covered in those particles usually won’t do it, Dr. Adalja explains.
This is especially true because of changes in toilet production. The Federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 ruled that toilets sold in the United States could flush a maximum 6 liters at a time, which can generate less plume than the previously allowed 11 to 13 liters of liquid, according to a 2013 study in Aerosol Science and Technology. Also, modern toilets typically use a submerged jet to suck away waste, which produces less toilet plume than older models that release water from the toilet rim, says the 2015 review. Some modern toilets are also high-efficiency, so they flush as little as possible, or dual-flush, so you can choose a lower- or higher-flush volume based on whether you peed or pooped.
Overall, the research shows that toilet plume seems to be the biggest concern in hospitals where toilets may have more pathogens, people are immunocompromised, and toilets often have greater flush energy.
While toilet plume probably won’t make you sick, you should still practice good toilet hygiene.
Fewer poop particles all over your bathroom is a nice thing, even if it has no bearing on your health. The biggest step you can take is putting the toilet seat down before you flush. This keeps things pretty well contained, Dr. Watkins says. (The study on C. difficile, for example, found that concentrations of this bacteria in the air were 12 times higher when the toilet lid was up vs. down.)
If you’re really freaked out by toilet plume, you can also use disinfectant wipes around your bathroom every day or so to reduce toilet-borne germs that might be hanging out on random surfaces, Reynolds says. If that suggestion is about as realistic as you walking on Mars, just try to do it when someone in your house is sick with something like food poisoning (there will be more infection-causing pathogens in the toilet bowl) or if you’re pregnant (since pregnant women have lowered immune systems), she says. Disinfecting your toilet bowl once a week is helpful, too, since it destroys most pathogenic microorganisms.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t panic about the plume, as gross as it is. “You get exposed to germs all the time, and your immune system deals with the majority of [them],” Reynolds says. “Don’t be alarmed.”