I am sure my headline has gotten your attention. Allow me to explain.
Public bathrooms have a negative stigma. Some of my friends won’t even use public bathrooms. Instead, they opt to “hold it in” rather than using a public bathroom because of fear of contracting a disease from sitting down on a toilet that has been used by countless other people. Well, they might be right, however, it is not for the reason they say.
Public bathrooms are dirty. However, the toilets are not the most dirty part of the bathroom.
Before I get into how scientists found this out, I would like to explain why I believe ordinary citizens deny that public toilets are clean.
1. Appeal to Authority:
I know I am guilty of this. Until I came across this, I too believed that public toilets were completely dirty. Why did I believe this? Probably because an authority of mine, probably my parents or an elementary school teacher, likely said public toilets were dirty. But should I have listened to them? Well, you should always listen to your parents as a child, but now that I am older I can say, no, I should not have listened to my parents when it came to the topic of public toilets. They were not experts in the topic, had no data, and like me, they too were probably appealing to their authorities when it came to this topic.
2. Confirmation Bias
There have been many studies on the cleanliness of public toilets. So why does the public not acknowledge this? People do not want to hear something they disagree with. If someone who believes public toilets are dirty, when they see a study like this, they disregard it because it goes against their longly held beliefs. They can even forget they even heard this news. This study must be respected, and if you do not think it’s correct, do the same study and try to find a different result.
Now, on to the science.
The study was published in the National Library of Medicine and posted by Mark R. Liles. Both door handles for the door of the bathroom, both handles for the door of the stall, the knobs of the sink, the soap dispenser, the handle to flush the toilet, the floor in the stall, the floor around the skin, and of course, the toilet seat were all tested for cleanliness for this study (Liles 2011). The study used 12 total bathrooms: six male and six female (Liles 2011).
This is an observational study. How do I know this? The scientists did not randomly pick people to use the bathrooms. People used the bathrooms for a full day without any instructions. This is as observational of a study as you could see. But there is a problem with observational studies: confounding variables.
The first confounding variable that popped into my head was the type of bathroom? Were all these bathrooms the same size and layout? The answer is yes! Another confounding variable can be did the same number of people use these bathrooms? Well that is not made clear by the research. I think the biggest confounding variable is the well-being of the bathrooms occupants. Since they don’t know who is using the bathroom, could the results be the result of sick people using the bathrooms more on the day they did the experiment? It is certainly possible.
The article does not suffer from the File Draw Problem because it was published. Could this be the only study the published and have many results that show the opposite? It could be possible, but not likely. It is not likely because it has been submitted for peer review, and other studies have not come out to denounce the study’s findings. This is the beauty of peer review and why other scientists should always submit their studies to scientific journals. Science is so informative, in part, because it builds upon past studies. If this study was completely wrong, other scientists could look at the study and explain why. They could also conduct their own studies.
So the answer to my question that I proposed in the headline of this blog has a simple answer. No, you should not stop using public toilets. I would like a meta-analysis to be completed on this topic to ensure that this result was not due to chance. However, until then I will trust this study as it was well conducted, and has not yet been challenged by other scientists even though it has been under peer review for many years.