Fear and loathing of public toilets is widespread


January 04, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,Contributing Writers

We had no idea Americans have such fear and loathing of toilet seats. It all started innocently enough when we received a letter from a reader. She wanted to know how to sterilize the seat in public rest rooms. Back pain had made it more difficult for her to crouch over grungy seats in movie theaters, gas stations and fast food restaurants.

We tried to be reassuring -- pointing out that people don't catch horrible diseases from sitting on the toilet.

A search of the medical literature turned up no cases and dermatologists we consulted knew of no instances of venereal disease transmitted in this casual manner.

Sterilizing the toilet seat of a public rest room is virtually impossible, but we offered two suggestions. One was alcohol wipes to clean the seat, and the other, dilute bleach to kill many organisms.

Then the mail started pouring in and it became clear that our answer was inadequate. Disposable paper seat covers were the most popular solution by far. One writer told us, "Like the people who have American Express cards, I don't leave home without it."

Many readers pack disposable seat covers. According to one, "I travel by car a great deal and am often forced to visit rest stops. In California the bathrooms are notoriously filthy and quite often have no seat covers or even toilet paper. I always carry both in my car and put some in my purse before using the facilities. It's a very simple and relatively inexpensive solution to the problem."

Clearly, people prefer not to let their skin come into contact with seats where others have rested their naked derrieres.

Without benefit of a paper seat protector, many people tend to crouch rather than to perch.

But urologists have found that women who hover over the seat instead of sitting have a slower release of urine and more residual urine left after emptying the bladder. This could increase the risk of a urinary tract infection. Incontinence treatment also becomes more complicated.

A listener to our radio show reminded us that this issue is culture-bound. He pointed out that in much of the world people crouch low out of necessity, for lack of toilets. He added that hemorrhoids are far less common in such cultures, but we don't know the urologic consequences.

Our hunt through the medical literature turned up one disquieting fact. Public rest room surfaces are commonly contaminated with invisible intestinal bacteria. Microbiologists found these not only on toilet seats, but also on flush and tap handles and doorknobs, which bothers us a lot more.

Should people use alcohol wipes on the tap handles? Should you open the door with a paper towel after washing your hands? We don't have the answers to these questions and don't even know if we should worry.

A recent letter from a reader set us straight on one issue: "Your dermatologists are wrong that you can't get anything from toilet seats. During World War II, I worked in the office of an Army camp. We shared a restroom with the Motor Pool -- some of the biggest, roughest, toughest females I've ever seen. All the females in our office got those 'little creepy crawly' things. It was very embarrassing to go to the clinic and be examined for treatment. Needless to say, after that experience I do not ever sit on a public toilet. I am 82 and it is not an easy task!

Q: I'm 29 and have had episodes of depression since I was a teen-ager. Now I'm on Prozac and have responded well. My problem is that my moods vary. I seem to notice the most loss of good mood when I eat a full meal. I can ill afford to lose weight since I am thin, but I'm afraid to eat very much because food seems to make me depressed again. Have you ever heard of this?

A: There is no logical explanation for your experience and yet we have heard of similar situations. In theory, Prozac is not affected by food. Some people have less appetite and significant weight loss has been reported as a side effect. A psychiatrist we consulted suggests to her patients that frequent snacks throughout the day may help avoid this problem.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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