I’ve been pondering that question ever since this revelation splashed across the Internet.
Like most of these groundbreaking discoveries, this one got plenty of media attention. Despite the numerous articles mentioning the purse-toilet seat connection study and its sponsor, the Initial Washroom Hygiene Solutions company, I wasn’t able to locate the full text or even an abstract of the investigation itself.
What I have pieced together from several different reports and the company’s press release is that 25 handbags were examined and 100 objects were swabbed.
It seems that only one in five of the purses had excessive contamination.
And here’s more interesting stuff from the press release: “Initial Washroom Hygiene, one of the UK’s leading hygiene and washroom services companies, today unveiled research showing that the handles of women’s handbags are home to more bacteria than the average toilet flush.”
So the contamination was with the handles of the bag and the comparison was to a toilet flush, not the toilet seat, which was the focus of many headlines. For example, this is what New York’s CBS News outlet said, “Study: Handbags May Have More Bacteria Than A Toilet Seat.”
Or here’s video from Slate which compares handbag contamination to both a toilet seat and a toilet (exact area of comparison not stated).
Let’s talk about some other problems.
The study was small. It was sponsored by a maker of hygiene products. It turns out that the term “toilet flush” is British for the handle with which one activates the flushing of a toilet, not the swirling water.
It is possible that a woman’s purse is more contaminated than a toilet flush, a toilet seat or even a toilet, but this “study” doesn’t prove anything. It simply serves to confuse lay people.
It is one of a plethora of studies that apparently consider the toilet seat as the “gold standard” for assessing contamination.
Here are some items that have been allegedly found to contain more bacteria than a toilet seat: cell phones, barbecues, desktops, kitchen sponges, light switches, computer keyboards, money, motel bedspreads, ATM keypads, office telephones, restaurant menus, grocery carts, steering wheels, gym equipment, and kitchen faucet handles.
As far as I know, disease transmission has not been linked to the handles or any other part of a woman’s purse or any of the other objects said to be more contaminated than a toilet seat.
Come to think of it, what about disease transmission from a toilet seat? Although a recent study linked over 9000 penile crush injuries over an 8-year period to falling toilet seats, there is no evidence that you can catch any infectious disease from a toilet seat.
Here’s a quote from a WebMD article on the subject: “To my knowledge, no one has ever acquired an STD [sexually transmitted disease] on the toilet seat—unless they were having sex on the toilet seat!” said Abigail Salyers, PhD, president of the American Society for Microbiology.
So can we please stop comparing things to toilet seats?
What we should be comparing things to is shower heads. See “Did Your Morning Shower Spray You With Bacteria?”
Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last three years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1300 page views per day, and he has over 7700 followers on Twitter.