19 different types of germs in restrooms

University of Colorado germ researchers gathered a smattering of samples in public bathrooms on the campus and found 19 types of bacteria lurking inside. And while it's no surprise that they found germs on bathroom surfaces, their discoveries reveal that not everybody is washing hands.

For example, gut bacteria — which live in the gastrointestinal tracts and are passed through urine and feces — were often coating the handles of bathroom exits. Lead author Gilberto Flores, a post-doctoral student at CU, said the research team also found a difference in germ patterns in men’s and women’s bathrooms. In women’s bathrooms, more urine-associated bacteria were found on the soap dispensers, indicating they’re more likely to wash their hands. The findings may be disturbing, but Flores said people’s immune systems are well-trained when it comes to being in contact with germs. “There’s no reason for alarm,” he said. “I think if people are just aware and washed their hands like we were all taught to do as kids, then they’ll be fine. It’s common sense, really.” Flores, who wouldn’t reveal what bathrooms the researchers swabbed for their study, said the findings don’t suggest that CU bathrooms are dirty. The researchers would have found a more heavily populated germ zoo had they gone to gas station bathrooms or rest stops. Flores said personal bathrooms likely have even more germs because they’re not cleaned as regularly as CU’s public bathrooms. The researchers, from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, found 19 types of bacteria. The microbes were categorized in three groups: bacteria living on the skin; the gut bacteria that live inside humans; and germs from soil and the outdoors that likely latched onto people’s shoes. Bacteria from outside soil traveling on the soles of shoes were found on flush handles, suggesting that germaphobes use their feet to flush toilets, according to the study. Germs found around the toilet were of the gut variety, suggesting fecal contamination either from direct contact by dirty hands or indirectly from being splashed when the toilet is flushed. The CU team’s findings have been published in PLoS One, a publication of the U.S. Public Library of Science. Next, the researchers will be studying germ patterns in residential kitchens. In the future, the researchers will be comparing germs found in urban and rural homes. Robin Kolble, of CU’s Community Health, a division of Wardenburg Health Center, said the school has a perennial hand-washing campaign that includes signs posted in bathrooms. Also, she said, over the past few years the university has outfitted all of its buildings with hand sanitizer stations.