Things that make you go, “Ewwww.”

We could tell when we pulled in the parking lot; this town’s chicken finger restaurant was mostly a “youth” destination. But I love chicken fingers and dipping sauce, and so we didn’t hesitate. Just as we walked in, I remember mentioning to my husband over my shoulder, “There are a lot of teenagers in here.” That was all.

After we ordered our chicken boxes, I choose to go to the bathroom to help “make the food come.” This is a common practice I enjoy, because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s worth a shot.

As I’m walking to the public restroom of the fast-food restaurant, I couldn’t help but hear a conversation among a group of what sounded like high school girls getting together over summer break. You know what I mean. It’s about five or six girls and they all are wearing t-shirts, too-short shorts, and flip flops, with the exception of one who is trying harder than the rest. Messy pony tails/buns with an over-use of curse words.

Just passing by their table made me giggle a little. We all remember what it was like to be like in a group of teenagers: laughing too loud, over-analyzing everything, harshly judging everyone, and cursing to sound cool. Now let me clarify, I hated high school kids back when I was in high school. To recognize that stage of life, as a “been there, done that; I’m about to turn 30” moment felt almost sentimental. I know moments like that will happen over and over in my life, so I took it in.

After using the bathroom like a normal human being, I was washing my hands at the sink with my best former public health employee etiquette as I could muster (like flush the toilet with my foot, turn off the faucet with a hand napkin- all that jazz). I should mention that I don’t consider myself a germophobe. My husband is a germophobe. For example, he makes me wash my hands as soon as I get home, will disinfect the shopping cart, can’t handle raw meat- kind of germophobe. But when you work in the public health field, you can’t help but know too much. Let’s just say I learned way more about oral-fecal transmission that the average person, and I am more wary because of it.

I was still in the middle of my 20-second “Birthday Song” hand wash, when one of the teenagers from the table in the restaurant flew through the door and dodged right into a stall. No biggie.

But then I heard it, and my eyes widen in disgust. She put her keys/wallet combination and her cell phone on the floor of the public restroom while she used the stall<insert: cringe and dry heave>.

I had a silent battle in my head, mostly filled with, “Hasn’t anyone ever taught you not to do that!” Think about it for a second. We’re in a fast-food restaurant where you eat chicken fingers and french fries with your hands. Even after she washes her hands, the bathroom floor scum will be on her cell phone and her wallet, which she will carry back with her to the table. And then proceed to eat her chicken fingers with piss-stained hands. This is how public health outbreaks begin, people!

I want to use this story as an example of what not to do and provide 5 fast facts about public bathroom hygiene:

  1. The toilet seat is not the dirtiest part of the restroom. While most dangerous germs found on toilet seats are the likes of Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and E. coli, those germs can only harm you if provided direct contact with your genital tract, or unless they enter through a cut or sore on your lower extremities. Also, keep in mind that germs don’t survive very long on the surface of the toilet seat because they are disinfected often.
  2. Beware of the spray. When you flush the toilet, a powerful spray is flung in all directions. This spray contains the remnants of the contents of the bowl (your stuff) along with any other lingering bacteria (other people’s stuff). Not awesome. It’s advised that you close the lid before you flush while at home. Or if you in a public restroom without a lid, open the door before you flush so you can quickly get out of the way of the poop spray.
  3. The underside of the toilet seat and the floor is the germiest surface. Ah ha, no here’s the kicker! These surfaces are cleaned the fewest times during public business hours. The floor can contain the worst of the worst type of germs: strep, staph, E-coli, coliform, rotavirus, and MRSA virus (which is potentially fatal). Remember, there is usually a hook on the door in ladies’ bathroom stalls for a reason: to hold a purse. And if there isn’t a hook in the stall, you can keep your purse around your shoulders. Or in the case of youths who don’t carry purses, at least the top of the toilet paper dispenser! The sad truth: keeping your phone/wallet in your own lap or in your hands while you use the restroom is cleaner than setting it on the floor, because it only comes into contact with your own germs. When you set it on the floor, it comes into contact with everyone else’s germs.
  4. The second-to-most germ-infested surfaces in restrooms are where your hands touch most often. Think toilet flush handle, stall lock, faucet surfaces, soap dispenser, paper towel dispenser, just to name a few. What’s most surprising is that the place where you wash your hands may be the most likely for bacteria because the water keeps the germs alive. When possible, use a barrier to touch these surfaces, like using your foot to flush the toilet and using a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
  5. There is a right way to wash your hands, which also means there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to simply put the fingertips under running water and call them clean. Honey child, you ain’t fooling anyone when you do that. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises you rub your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds (which is determined either by counting or by singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice in your head). Be sure to scrub both sides of your hands, and get in between your fingers and under the nails. When soap and water is not available, use hand sanitizer. But keep in mind that over-use of hand sanitizer in between hand washings will leave a film on your hands that actually attract germs.

And here’s the Cliff Notes-version for all you skimmers out there: leave the stall as quickly as you can after you flush to avoid contact with “the spray.” Don’t put anything on the floor of a public restroom. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Dry your hands with a paper towel, and use the paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door handle.

Congratulations, you survived a trip to the public restroom! You’re welcome.

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