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Toilet talk 2

Posted: 29th September 2020

Kevin Wellman
Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE)

In 2019 (remember then, an innocent time?) I wrote a piece on the run up to World Toilet Day, inspired by the CIPHE’s Love your local lav campaign. Back then things seemed dire, with the steady de-funding and closure of public lavatories affecting swathes of our society, particularly women, young families, the elderly, the disabled and those with medical conditions.

My argument was that public toilets are a necessity and not a luxury, providing dignity, independence and safety. Importantly, provision of these facilities strengthened the local economy by increasing footfall. Most of all, they greatly enhanced people’s confidence and wellbeing. Further, that public toilets allowed some of the most vulnerable in society, plus those with young children and medical conditions, the freedom to leave their homes and undertake everyday tasks, without the fear and indignity of being caught short.

That was in a pre Covid-19 world and those arguments are only reinforced by recent experience, with the need for public facilities having never been so apparent.

Public toilets and Covid-19

We’ve all now had a taste of what isolation at home feels like and for many of us it has been a challenging experience. Empathy with those who find themselves in this position, simply down to a lack of public toilets, is surely so much easier to find.

Simply following official public health advice means frequent hand washing is a high priority for keeping everyone safe from coronavirus. Add to this a fragile economy and a drive to get the public spending money on the High Street again, and the argument for councils to provide much needed public lavatories rings clear.

When lockdown restrictions first began to lift, those of us re-emerging from homes to visit shops, pubs, restaurants and local tourist hot spots, found ourselves hitting toilet troubles when nature called. With a large number of public toilets closed, the scarcity of accessible, clean and hygienic lavatories led to widespread reports of people urinating and even defecating in public.

While some facilities have started to reopen, a lack of provision to enable safe toileting and frequent hand washing, highlights a grave public health issue. This is why closing toilets down must not be considered a cheap and easy option. Of course, a lack of loos impacts an already struggling economy too, as people hitting the high streets inevitably limit their time away from home.

The sad truth is that, following on from decades of underinvestment, this was all so predictable. According to the British Toilet Association, pre-lockdown councils in England had on average 15 operational public toilets per 12,500 people. The BBC also found that at least 673 public toilets across the UK have ceased to be maintained by major councils since 2010.

Worryingly, some high street and tourist destinations now have no operational public toilets at all, previously relying upon good-natured local businesses to open their toilets to the public. However, with coronavirus restrictions in place, companies are far less likely to admit non-customers, especially when facing management of social distancing regulations and restrictions on how many can come through the doors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of society and the need for citizens to act collectively for the good of others. Amongst many things to be learned from this experience, I hope that government at national and local levels will change its approach to public services and facilities, not least of all the good old-fashioned toilet.

Flip ‘n’ flush

Toilets also hit the headlines during lockdown as new research was released looking into the spread of coronavirus, germs and other nasties via toilet plume.

While it has been generally accepted that toilet plume - tiny droplets and aerosol particles released into the air due to turbulence caused by flushing - offered a small risk of transmission of illnesses, it was always thought that for the healthy and those with good hygiene, it would pose few problems. Then coronavirus struck.

According to current evidence, coronavirus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact routes. Airborne transmission is possible via aerosols, as is faecal–oral transmission. New research by Yun-yun Li, Ji-Xiang Wang and Xi Chen, Can a toilet promote virus transmission? From a fluid dynamics perspective, warned that 40-60% of toilet plume particles could reach to a height of 106.5 cm above the ground - well in excess of the height of a toilet seat - enabling the spread of particles on nearby surfaces. During computer simulations, particles could also stay suspended in the air long enough to be breathed in post-flushing.

While a proven case of transmission of the virus via the risk identified in the research is still to be established, we should take all measures available to help stop the spread of coronavirus and other illnesses such as staphylococcus and E. coli. That’s why the CIPHE launched its flip ‘n’ flush campaign, urging everyone to close the toilet lid before flushing, to remove any associated danger of toilet plume. Needless to say, this should always be backed up by vigorous hand washing routine. Those wanting to be ultra-careful, can also then clean the toilet seat before it is used to further reduce the risk of potential infection.

Changing Places

Buried in the Covid-19 news cycle, there has been some good news. Disability rights campaigners have been celebrating changes to the Building Regulations, as Changing Places toilets for severely disabled people become compulsory in new public buildings in England from next year. Additionally, a £30 million fund will be opened to install Changing Places toilets in existing buildings, while the Department for Transport, in partnership with Muscular Dystrophy UK, has also announced £1.27 million to install 37 more Changing Places at service stations across England.

The new facilities will join the existing 1400 Changing Places across the UK, creating larger accessible toilets, (12m2) for severely disabled people, that include equipment such as hoists, curtains, adult-sized changing benches and space for carers.

It is hoped the amendment to the Regulations will help 250,000 people by adding truly accessible toilets to more than 150 buildings a year in England, including supermarkets, shopping centres, stadiums, cinemas and arts venues.

This is a real win for the disability community, with regulatory changes that will aid some of the most vulnerable in our society. Those with disabilities should not have to battle to find facilities that enable them to leave the house with dignity. It is encouraging to see the Government is committed to acting swiftly on this issue.