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Mother was right -- public potties a menace

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Was Mother right when she advised me never to sit on a public toilet seat? Vancouver believed it had solved this potty fear by installing automated toilets, but they proved we still need to teach humans to behave as well as pigs.

"How well do you know Toronto?" I once asked a newcomer to the city. " 'Well, ' " she replied, " 'I now know the location of the pubic toilets.' "

This topic will not win the Nobel Prize in Medicine, but it's vital knowledge if you have urinary or bowel problems.

Vancouver believed it had solved potty paranoia by installing high-tech potties. Touch a button and the door slides open, followed by voice instructions. After each use, the facility is automatically cleaned and disinfected. In 2011, they were used by 177,000 people, but vandalized 856 times. Homo sapiens also flushes blue jeans, sweaters and T-shirts down the toilet. Such behaviour might force the city to close these facilities.

A farmer friend of mine is right: Pigs are cleaner than some humans, smart, make good pets and never foul their environment. Pigs roll in mud, but that's to get rid of bacteria and fungi.

Is it reasonable to be potty-paranoid? If you are, you're not alone. One survey showed 30 per cent of people "hold it" rather than use a public toilet. Forty per cent flush the toilet with their feet and 60 per cent hover over it.

Good sense tells us toilet seats are hardly the most hygienic places. Scientific studies confirm this concern. One report showed 97 per cent of toilet seats harbour bacteria that cause boils, 81 per cent have germs that cause diphtheria and hepatitis, 39 per cent have bacteria that cause sore throats and 19 per cent are infected with staphlococcus and salmonella bacteria associated with food poisoning.

Can toilet seats transmit venereal disease? It's estimated 20 million North Americans have genital herpes. For years, it's been believed the virus could only be picked up by sexual contact.

But then Dr. Trudy Larsen, a researcher at the University of California, startled the scientific world. Her discovery will not win the Nobel Prize, but her simple experiment put to rest a common misconception.

Larsen took samples from genital herpes lesions and placed them on a toilet seat. She asked a patient with an open active lesion to sit on the seat for a few seconds. Later that year, at a scientific meeting, she informed doctors the herpes virus survived at least four hours on the toilet seat.

To further prove her point, Larsen took samples of the virus from 10 patients with active lesions. She infected rubber gloves, instruments and dry gauze with the virus. They were all left in the open air and examined hours later. The results were shocking. It was formerly believed the virus died quickly when exposed to room air, but the herpes virus was still live.

A study at McGill University revealed the human papilloma virus has been detected on toilet seats. This virus causes genital warts and is present in 90 per cent of cervical cancer patients.

McGill researchers proved an infected bottom isn't the only way to infect seats. By placing dye in the toilet then flushing it, they found dye sprayed all over the seat. What goes in the bowl comes out of the bowl.

Another study showed if men are standing at a urinal next to each other, the spray can travel three feet. That's also food for thought.

So Mother was right about the potty. One woman passed along this practical advice: She said, "With pantyhose at my knees, I hover over the toilet, clutching my purse with my teeth, on high heels." Cirque du Soleil would be proud of her.

Now if we could only teach humans to behave like pigs.

Next week: The most important column I've ever written -- a remedy to prevent a heart attack.


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2012 A23

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