This May Be Spreading an "Alarming" Amount of COVID in Public, Study Finds

Public restrooms are even dirtier than you think, thanks to these COVID-spreading fixtures.

Even in the healthiest and cleanest of times, a public restroom is probably last on the list of places you want to step foot in. Sure, they're one of the few ways you can wash your hands while on the go, but public bathrooms are also full of potential contamination possibilities in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And according to a new study published in the journal Physics of Fluids today, one public restroom fixture in particular could be spreading around an "alarming" amount of COVID every time they're used in public: urinals.

A group of researchers at Yangzhou University in China used a computer model to determine fluid dynamics and particle movement from urinals. They found that the act of flushing a urinal can release plumes of aerosols carrying potentially contaminated coronavirus particles into the air that can be inhaled by anyone nearby.

The modeling showed that flushing a urinal "manifests an external spread type, with more than 57 percent of the particles traveling away from the urinal," Xiangdong Liu, a researcher who worked on the study, said in a statement.

The study also found that unlike toilets, urinals can create an "alarming upward flow" of particles when flushed, with models showing that the virus can potentially travel the same distance over six times faster than it could from a toilet flush. Particles spread by a urinal flush reached a man's thighs within 5.5 seconds, as compared to 35 seconds after a toilet flush.

Urinals "show a more violent climbing tendency," Liu said. "The climbing speed is much faster than toilet flushing."


In a March study published in the journal Emerging Microbes & Microbes, researchers extracted coronavirus particles from the urine of a confirmed COVID-19 patient. Liu and her team note that could indicate that "urine-based transmission could be a previously ignored transmission route" and that urinals "could become another dangerous item."

Since urinals are more frequently used in more densely populated areas, experts say this could pose a unique health risk in cities and urban areas. "From our work, it can be inferred that urinal flushing indeed promotes the spread of bacteria and viruses," Liu said.

Additionally, the droplets spread from urinals "could contaminate other surfaces you would touch—the handle, the tap," Charles Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona, told USA Today. "The concern is also—was there anything left over from the person who was there before? Aerosolization from the previous user you may potentially inhale?"

Public restrooms generally pose a specific threat of spreading airborne pathogens like COVID due to their tendency to be windowless and poorly ventilated.

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So, what's the best way to protect yourself against urinal plumes? Liu proposes a simple solution: "Wearing a mask should be mandatory within public restrooms during the pandemic, and anti-diffusion improvements are urgently needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19." And for more on how to stay safe in the bathroom, check out The Bathroom Habit That Dangerously Spreads the Coronavirus.

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Zachary Mack
Zachary covers beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He's the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in New York City and is a Certified Cicerone. Read more
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