Beware the Lidless Toilet
An early-pandemic theory of COVID transmission now seems dubious. But there are other reasons to fear the toilet plume.By Kelli María Korducki
Mind the Plume
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Don’t be fooled by the unsettling elegance of the phrase toilet plume. It describes the invisible cloud of particles heaved by a toilet when flushed, and was once feared to be a vector for COVID-19. My colleague Jacob Stern recently revisited the toilet-plume panic for The Atlantic, writing that although this early-pandemic fear hasn’t been substantiated, there are still other reasons to beware of the open lid. I called him to find out more.
Kelli María Korducki: You write that toilet plume has been a subject of scientific inquiry for quite some time. How did COVID enter that conversation, and when did it leave that conversation?
Jacob Stern: I’m not totally sure what the initial spark for it was. But as you say, people have been thinking about toilet plume for a shockingly long time. The earliest papers go all the way back to the 1950s. There’s also a history that I didn’t even get into in this article, of toilet-related public-health panics—many of them completely unjustified—having to do with either the civil-rights movement or the AIDS epidemic. And so, in some sense, it was deeply unsurprising that in this moment of fear and uncertainty, there would be a toilet-related panic around the coronavirus.
Kelli: I remember that panic. I had a friend who was convinced she was going to get COVID after an upstairs neighbor’s toilet overflowed, sometime in that scary first year of the pandemic. What do you think set off worries like this one?
Jacob: If you go back and look at when the big news articles about toilet plume were published, those were back in June 2020. There was a study published around that time, which I think was one of the instigators for this whole panic suggesting that toilets might be, as one of the newspapers put it, flinging coronavirus all over the place. And then there were another couple of waves of panic.
In my article, I mention a review paper from December 2021 [which found “no documented evidence” of viral transmission via fecal matter] that kind of dispelled the myth. But plenty of academic papers aren’t particularly noticed by the public. So I don’t think that, in the public imagination, that paper made all that big a dent.
Kelli: You point out in your article that even though the potential COVID connection was overblown, we should still be a little afraid of toilets.
Jacob: The basic takeaway is that even if it seems like toilets are not a vector of COVID transmission, there are still all sorts of other pathogens that are really unpleasant to have to deal with. In the case of toilet plume, gastrointestinal viruses such as norovirus are the main worry. And those, we know, are transmitted via what are called fecal-oral routes. Those are still a concern, as far as toilet plume goes. If you don’t want a stomach bug, it’s still worth worrying about.
Kelli: This may be too much information, but although I’ve read your article, I’m still kind of convinced that I caught COVID last year from a public bathroom. I can’t think of any other possible exposures in the infection time frame. Is my position defensible?
Jacob: I would say your position is defensible, yes. Despite the fact that it seems like toilet plume itself was not a huge driver of COVID transmission, there are obviously lots of other human beings in public bathrooms, all of whom are quite capable of transmitting COVID via respiratory pathways. So it seems totally plausible that you might have gotten COVID in the normal way, from someone else’s breath, and that just happened in the public restroom.
Kelli: Has your writing and reporting on this subject changed your behaviors around flushing?
Jacob: Yes, for sure. Even before I started reporting this story, the toilet-plume discourse had penetrated enough that I was already much more careful about always closing the lid on a toilet than I had been previously. Now I not only do that myself but get annoyed at family members and friends when they fail to do so. I’ve become pretty self-righteous about it.
I will also say that, when I have one on me, I will now wear a mask in a public restroom, which is certainly not something I would’ve especially gone out of my way to do before. After writing this story, putting on a mask for the three minutes I’m in a restroom—even if I’m not wearing one otherwise—seems like a great move rather than a pointless one.