A tale of two toilets… in Chicago

Are you the kind of person who when faced with the ominous apparent necessity of touching stuff in a public toilet does something like this?

Photo: ‘Flushing’ urinal in a public toilet somewhere in the States. Be assured no damage was done… my foot dexterity is high, having once been trained in zen non-violent karate… 😉

Then on first encounter a public toilet contraption like the one you can behold operating in all its protective-plastic-film glory in my video below probably strikes you as positively heaven sent:

This is the SeatOne automated toilet seat cover, and although I could not find a webpage for it, its ‘instructions’ and related gubbins show it’s serviced (and possibly supplied) by the United Maintenance Company.

This particular example I stumbled upon (almost literally, go jet lag!) in Chicago O’Hare International Airport (plus a few other people on YouTube have clearly found witnessed it in action too):

Photo: SeatOne logo on the automated toilet seat cover.
Photo: Instructions for the SeatOne automated toilet seat cover in a toilet at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Delving into this toilet cover thing a bit deeper although – not into the actual toilet that is, but rather into the tech, its cost and user responses to it – sadly things get quite a bit ‘dirtier’ quite fast (pun intended).

First up, reports back in January 2013 about these specific toilets at O’Hare, conducted in a kind of bizarre undercover reporter expose fashion, showed that the automatic seat cover system’s rotation “drags up [any] liquid splashed on the rim and redeposits droplets of the liquid on the supposedly fresh new plastic.”

In this particular instance of daring journalism the liquid was just orange juice, but one can imagine what would happen with urine or faeces (your willingness to conjure up this image may vary of course, but my daydreams on water and sanitation issues are pretty graphic!).

Having said that, the manufacturer of the toilet subjected to the OJ test in this particular story was not very happy to see the example extrapolated from juice to the toilet’s ‘customary use’, and intend wanted to point to more than a decade of happy use of these toilets in the past:

“… the way the reporter portrayed the use of the seat—by pouring orange juice on the rim of the bowl—is not the customary use of the toilet bowl. … You can take any product today and play it around with it enough to make it not work the way it should be working.”

– Jerold Wagenheim, vice president of marketing at North American Hygiene Inc. (as of 2013)

Source: Huffington Post via ABC

A bit of reflection on the seat’s design may reveal this to be a bit of a ‘duh’ no-brainer moment. It seems the coverage took more objection to the fact that installation of these kinds of toilets was (an unspecified proportional) part of a five-year, 100 million US Dollar service contract to United Maintenance Co. There are of course other manufacturers of similar devices, such as Brill Products’ Brill Seat, Hygolet, and Sani-Seat. All claim positive health and hygiene benefits to their products.

Some systems are rumoured to include apparent UV disinfection as the plastic moves through the mechanism to address killing germs, static or in motion on the toilet seat (although the teardown pics in the links above didn’t appear to show anything other than dispensing of a strip of plastics).

This brings us to the second reported gripe about these seat covers – oh, and I suppose there’s the environmental impact of all the plastic use too, but we’ll set that aside for now – which is whether they can protect users from, or perhaps even increase risk of, catching sexually transmitted infections/diseases (STIs, STDs) from the toilet seat.

I couldn’t find anything conclusive on this, particularly regarding plastic toilet seat covers specifically. There was this ostensibly ‘ob/gyn’-written blog post about catching STDs from toilet seats in general though; in it, Mary Jane Minkin MD of Yale Medical School encourages the article to conclude:

“Readers, you can rest easy. There’s basically no chance of you contracting an STI from a toilet seat, and any chance that does exist is so negligible that it’s not worth devoting much brainpower to…” 

“You’d basically have to try to get an STI from a toilet by rubbing an open wound or mucous membrane all over fluids left there by someone who had used the toilet only seconds before. So, while there are plenty of reasons not to be a huge fan of public toilet seats, the chance of getting an STI isn’t one of them.”

However there is a key caveat in this article that’s worth noting for the automatic seat cover case. The article mentions that viruses die “quickly outside of the body” such as when they are “hanging out on cold, hard toilet seats.” But… does the plastic liner running through a motorised mechanism by contrast make the toilet seat softer and warmer? I’ll leave you to ruminate on this speculation at your own leisure… and am certainly NOT drawing any conclusions here that will lead to me getting (another) nasty gag-order through the post from some company’s legal team (which HAS happened before, but more about that another time!).

An unintended benefit of this encounter – OCD/STD/STI-related concerns aside – was that it did remind me once again to be alert to various toilet-related oddities and variety for the rest of my recent USA trip.

Photo: Some of the hundred or so miles of cornfields between Chicago and the Urbana-Champaign area. Credit: Maria Nedeva.

For instance upon returning to Chicago airport after driving ~300 miles to Urbana/Champaign and back through very flat, horizon-expanding, giant expanses of cornfields I noticed an entirely ‘hands free’ sink design in one of the domestic terminal parts of O’Hare. This came complete with a motion operated hands-free soap dispenser, hands-free tap, and a hands-free hand dryer (left-to-right in the photo below):

Photo: Hands-free hygienic bliss at a sink in a different part of O’Hare airport.

The OCD-er-in-me did a merry-little-jig at this special sight, but no doubt anyone who’s seen the celebrated F-diagram of how faeces get into our mouths would have been happy here too!

I later spotted a nice little addition to washbasin sinks in, I believe it was Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, for children to wash their hands more easily and accessibly:

Photo: ‘Step ‘n Wash’ system at Atlanta airport, for children to be able to reach the adult height sinks more easily.

The instructions on the restroom mirror showed this to be the Step ‘n Wash system (the last toilet step I personally stepped on in the USA was of course the infamous Squatty Potty system!):

Photo: Instructions sticker for the Step ‘n Wash system.

There was another showering oddity to discover elsewhere on this trip, although I had thought that my previous experiences with the very non-European controls that USA showers use would have prepared me better for it. See if you can spot the special strangeness at work in this gloomy shower pic below:

Photo: <> Count the number of shower-heads in this picture! 😉  [from a hotel on the outskirts of Chicago]
Yes, there are in fact TWO shower-heads in this bath, both controlled from the same all-in-one flow and temperature control lever! I wasn’t sure wherefrom water would emerge when starting this shower, but I’m happy to say it all worked out OK in the end…

Lastly, I did notice one positive development during this trip, which was the water-used-per-flush on most of the toilets I saw (used). In the UK now most toilets use 4 to 6 litres per flush, rather than the old ~13 litres per flush of older design toilets – a big issue given that about one-third of UK household water use is toilet-flushing (facts here from Waterwise). I was happy then to peer more closely at this toilet, for example:

Photo: A toilet bowl in the same gloomy hotel room as the two-headed shower shown above.

And, zooming in, to find that it only used 6 litres (1.6 [US] gallons) per flush:

Photo: Kohler brand toilet with a 6-litre flush.

Overall, I always like to notice the unusual things in the seemingly mundane world of water and sanitation tech and practices. This USA trip was another opportunity to exercise this quirky muscle, but it also made me remember why – given the kinds of pictures I seem to take more and more these days – it’s not exactly a surprise Waterstink doesn’t have an Instagram account now, is it?  😉

[Maybe people on Instagram ARE actually into this stuff! Who knows? … Cue Duncan’s discovery of @toiletsgram, @toilets_ofthe_world, @nyctoilets, @toiletsoforlando, and so on!]

Duncan Thomas

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