You’re at that festival that shuts down an entire street in your city for one day each June. The sun is shining, a reggae band has just rocked the crowd into a mellow groove, and you're back from the beer stand with two armfuls of cheap lager in plastic cups for everyone. It seems like nothing could go wrong in this moment. Then you feel a rumble in your guts.
That combination of shredded beef tacos, sweet potato fries with guacamole dip, and hazelnut latte you assembled from the food truck court three hours ago is making its exit. You endure a four-minute wait outside the row of port-a-johns. As soon as the plastic door swings shut, you drop trou, sit, and unload. You have one brief moment of total relief when you notice the toilet paper roll is empty. Oh, shit—literally.
With no other options, you pull up your jean shorts and head back to your friends, knowing in your shameful heart that you didn’t complete a basic checklist item on the toilet training protocol you learned at age four. Here's the trouble you may—or may not—be about to face.
How bad is it not to wipe?
One gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, one million forms of bacteria, one thousand parasite cysts, and a hundred worm eggs, according to the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. So now you’re walking around with all of those possible threats, separated from the greater world by one layer of denim and another of thin underoos.
Fecal matter on your clothing and body can, sometimes in ways unnoticed, spread particles to your hands, and then throughout your environment and even into your body—as hand-to-mouth germ transfer is common through simple acts like eating and drinking.
“In terms of hygiene, it’s absolutely unacceptable” not to wipe, says Aaron Glatt, chair of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital and spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America. “Find something to clean yourself off with,” he implores. “Use water or leaves. Do everything possible.”
The situation can be worsened by the type of poop in question, adds Philip M. Tierno, a professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine. “If you have loose stool, it can spread further,” Tierno says. Naturally, such feces seeps into clothing and breaks that barrier to the world outside your pants more easily.
The risk is greater for women. An unclean anus is positioned dangerously close to the vagina, creating a entryway for bacteria into the urethra, leading to a possible urinary tract infection.
This is one reason Tierno recommends people, particularly women, go to places outside the range of normal, well-restocked bathrooms carrying at least a packet of tissues and alcohol-based sanitizer. In other words, plan ahead if you’re going to a summer festival, remote nature area, or highway rest area in the rural south.
What travels with feces?
Because fecal matter is an output of the body, all the infectious diseases and bacteria one carries are brewed into it by the time it’s slated for release. E. coli, enterococcus, diarrheal parasites, and other germs whose effects range from annoying to deadly are spread through excrement. Norovirus, the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the US, is a gut rider.
It may be of some comfort to know that if you have access to hole over which to squat and a shower in your near future, you are—globally speaking—lucky.
In her 2008 book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, journalist Rose George cites UN statistics that 2.6 million people lack access to sanitation. “I don’t mean that they have no toilet in their house and must use a public one…or that they have an outhouse, or a rickety shack that empties into a filthy drain or pigsty,” she writes. George means that “four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box. Nothing. Instead, they defecate by train tracks and in forests. They do it in plastic bags and fling them through the air in narrow slum alleyways.”
The public health problems associated with a lack of sanitization and disposal of waste can be staggering. Poor sanitation, bad hygiene, and water contamination from largely fecal sources cause one in ten of the world’s illnesses, according to World Health Organization
investigators whom George cites.
Poop can pose serious risks, but in areas with more advanced sanitation and sewage systems, our immune systems are fighting a continual battle against a (comparatively) low-level barrage of germs spread by fecal particles and our immune systems usually win.
So you’re right to be alarmed in a T.P. emergency, but in terms of the daily way our societies and our bodies fight against fecal particles and the germs they spread, it’s a small, but unpleasant, risk factor, Tierno says.
How widespread are fecal particles?
“We, as a society, are bathed in feces,” Tierno says. “People wash their hands inadequately, even if they have access to a bathroom and they spread those particles to other areas of the body.”
It’s not difficult to google some articles finding that fecal traces are common on items like yoga mats, coffee cups, kitchen faucet handles. As an old book once said, everyone poops, and that creates some level of bacterial nuisance that different societies and individuals have varying success levels combating
This means a few hours walking around unwiped is only one awkward and uncomfortable level higher than enduring the fecal load hidden on your hands and surface areas each day.
“It certainly causes irritation for that person,” Tierno says. However, as a public health nuisance, it’s “small,” he says. Your body already fights and usually wins the battle against germs and microorganisms that accompany the usual fecal contamination of a relatively well-sanitized area in a developed world. Though a small dollop uncleaned poop clinging to your body intensifies that fight, it can probably win that one too.
You have an even more diminished chance of developing E. coli or norovirus from fecal matter spreading at a large public event, because “all the sick people are staying home,” Tierno says.
If you can’t wipe due to a music festival or public beach maintenance crew slacking on the job, or if you’re roughing it on a hike and need to squat, that’s certainly bad. Stool is a major carrier of disease, and our revulsion to it is justified. This is why tissues and sanitizer are great additions to any purse, fanny pack, backpack, or pocket. But in a world where fecal traces keep circulating up like the spam of environmental particles, an hour or so unwiped probably won’t harm you. Just get ye to the nearest friend’s house or Starbucks bathroom—because anyone can go in now—as soon as you can for a proper cleanup of your nether regions.
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