More things you should never flush down the loo

In my previous posting I emphasised that, because it is designed to have a low wet strength, bog wipe is the only paper product that you can safely flush down the loo. But inappropriate paper products such as facial tissues and paper towels are not the only everyday items that people foolishly flush away.

Do not flush 2Since the porcelain throne is one of the most frequently-used appliances in the home, it is tempting to exploit it for the disposal of various unwanted items, including used personal hygiene products and kitchen waste. But imprudent flushing can cause blockages that may lead to an expensive bill from your plumber or may contribute to massive problems in the general sewerage system and even have disastrous environmental effects.

A prominent story in the news recently (September 2017) concerned a colossal “fatberg” obstructing a major sewer in east London. A fatberg is a congealed mass of discarded fats, oils and grease that, after being washed down sinks or flushed down loos, have become mixed up with solids derived from items unwisely flushed away, such as wet wipes, disposable nappies, sanitary products, toilet seat wipes and facial tissues. This newsworthy fatberg clogged a 250m-long stretch of a large Victorian sewer and was estimated to weigh 130 tons.

So, in addition to paper towels and facial tissues, what products that we are frequently tempted to flush away can cause problems? There are many, and some may surprise you:

Dental floss  You might think that dental floss would flush away easily from your toilet or bathroom sink, but these tiny strands can tangle up any solid they encounter in the sewage system, helping to create large clogs that may result in a nasty bill from your plumber. Put dental floss in the rubbish bin.

Hairs  Washing your hair can leave strands clogging the sink outlet. Most people probably scrape them out and flush them down the loo. But, as with dental floss, whichever way they get into the sewerage system they can bind other solids together and contribute to large tangles. Any hairs you shed should go into your general garbage rather than into the waste water system.

Sanitary wipes  Manufacturers may state that their sanitary wipes are flushable, but this claim is dodgy because wipes do not disintegrate in water as quickly as toilet paper and they can therefore contribute to a clogged toilet or blocked sewer pipes before they have a chance to come apart.

Tampons  Think twice before flushing tampons down the loo. While they too will eventually break down in water, there is no way of knowing how fast they will decompose, and they too could contribute to fatbergs.

Cotton wool products  It may seem harmless to flush cotton wool balls and swabs down the loo, but they have been known to build up in bends of piping, ultimately creating, or contributing to, costly blockages.

Disposable nappies  No! NO! NO!

Oils and fats  Never dispose of cooking fats down the toilet or the kitchen sink. While they may be liquid when you flush them away, when they cool down they can solidify into a waxy gunge that is guaranteed to clog your drains.

Food products  Leftover foods should go into a food waste bin or onto a compost heap (or as a last resort into a trash can). Flushing food items down the loo can lead to expensive plumbing repairs.

Chewing gum  Chewing gum will stick to anything it meets in your pipes, and it will never dissolve in water. So when you’ve finished chewing your gum, toss it in the trash can (preferably wrapped it in paper).

Cigarette butts  Ashtrays should be emptied into the rubbish bin, and fag-ends should never go into the loo. Cigarette filters and plastic-tipped butts can easily get stuck in the loo outflow. They also contaminate the water with carcinogens and other toxins.

Dead fish  Deceased goldfish — and other dead pets — will not disintegrate in water and are also likely to clog your sewage system. Instead, give them a proper burial in your garden, put them into your food waste bin or feed them to your cat.

Cat litter  On the subject of cats, be aware that kitty litter contains clay and sand that can seriously clog up the sewerage system. And your cat’s waste probably also contains toxins and parasites that can pass through sewage treatment plants and endanger wildlife in our rivers.

Bandages and plasters  Used bandages and plasters are not only likely to clog up your drains but can also have a terrible impact on the environment. Put them in your dustbin.

Medicines  If you have any unwanted medicines to dispose of, you may be tempted to flush them down the loo. But this is risky because drugs contaminate water supplies and have been shown to harm aquatic wildlife. Do not flush any unwanted medicines and do not dispose of them in your general rubbish either. Instead, take them to your local pharmacy, which will arrange for them to be incinerated.

Don’t flush away paper products other than loo paper

Do not flush 1

The only paper product that you should flush down the lavatory pan is loo paper. Never flush away disposables such as paper towels and facial tissues.

Why? Because paper products other than bog roll are constructed so that they hold together when wet — after all, you don’t want your paper towels to fall to pieces as you dry your hands or your facial tissues to come apart as you blow your snotty nose. And paper products that hold together can cause blockages in the plumbing. Bog paper, on the other hand, is designed to disintegrate quickly when wet, so that it will pass easily through the drainage pipes into the sewers.

The ease with which paper products disintegrate in water is determined by their wet strength, which is the ratio of the force needed to tear the product when it is wet to the force needed when it is dry. To attain a low wet strength, and so promote rapid disintegration, bog paper is made with short fibres. But most other paper disposables are made with longer fibres to give them a higher wet strength. They may also be impregnated with chemicals such as resins, which increase both their wet strength and their dry strength. And a high wet strength means that such products hold together firmly within the sewerage system, creating a semi-solid mass that may cause a nasty blockage. And even when an offending clog has been forced past the U-bend, it may well go on to contribute to problems further on in the sewerage system.

Sadly, manufacturers of such disposables often fail to make it clear that their products are not appropriate for flushing. For instance, my wife recently bought some Domestos Toilet Wipes (Unilever UK Ltd), which are labelled with the instruction, “Simply wipe over toilet surfaces and throw away after use”. But with any loo-related product, users are likely to assume that “throw away” equates to “flush away”. Labels should make it absolutely clear that such products should not go down the pan.

In publicly accessible loos you may see signs telling users not to flush paper towels, etc, down the pan. But it seems that this request is often ignored, since yucky WC blockages seem to be a common feature of such loos.

I have a suggestion. Perhaps users would be less likely to flush away inappropriate products if the warning signs actually bothered to explain WHY they should not be flushed. A simple practical explanation may elicit a better response than a blunt “DO NOT” sign.

How flushing can affect brushing

Women frequently complain about men failing to put the loo seat down after a pee. (What’s the problem? Do women have difficulty lowering the seat themselves?) But in my clearly limited experience, those men who do elect to replace the seat also tend to put the lid down too — which is something that women almost never seem to do when they have finished their lavatorial business.

Does it matter if you don’t drop the lid? Yes, it does. It really does.

The lid is not there just for cosmetic reasons. It has a valuable hygiene-related purpose that means you should always lower it before you flush the loo.

Research has shown that the force generated by a post-poo flush creates an invisible mist that contains significant quantities of aerosolised faecal bacteria. This bug-filled cloud, known as “toilet plume”, rises from the toilet pan and spreads right across even the largest bathroom, so that it contaminates towels, taps and — ugh! — toothbrushes. Lowering the lid before you flush will greatly reduce the risk of such contagion.

Researchers at an American university tested toothbrushes kept in communal bathrooms and found that more than half were contaminated with faecal coliform bacteria. And in shared bathrooms, these bacteria are likely to have come from someone else’s bum. Yuk! So you should always lower the lid before flushing and you should press other loo users to do likewise.

Don’t poo-poo this suggestion.

Furthermore, the research findings indicate that you should always wash your toothbrush well before squeezing your nurdle of toothpaste onto it. Brushing your teeth with your own coliform bacteria may not pose a problem, but ingesting bacteria derived from other people’s guts could put you at risk of a nasty infection.

The benefits of lowering the loo lid obviously also apply to lavatories accessible to the public. Unfortunately, the WCs in many public loos do not feature lids, so you cannot reduce the spread of aerosolised bacteria even if you want to. OK, so you are not likely to brush your teeth in a public convenience, but you are still at risk of unwittingly ingesting or inhaling faecal microbes from other people’s toilet plume.

(Incidentally, lavatory lids are not necessarily designed to be sat upon. If you choose to park yourself on the loo lid — for instance, while supervising your children’s bath time — you risk cracking even the most expensive lid.)

London’s recycled public loos


While mourning the gradual disappearance of public loos in Britain, I must admire the way some defunct bogs have been put to other uses. In London, there has been a trend in recent years for converting public lavatories into restaurants and bars and other commercial facilities. if you are bursting to sample one of these loo conversions, then read on. But be warned: London restaurants tend to come and go rapidly, and so by the time you read this blog piece, some of the establishments mentioned may have already gone down the pan.

CellarDoor, Zero Aldwych, London WC2E 7DN
This former Victorian toilet in Aldwych — and yes, it’s even in a “WC” postal district — is now a tiny underground cocktail-and-snuff joint accessed by purple-lit stairs leading down from pavement level. It offers burlesque shows, open mic nights, musical-theatre cabaret crooners, drag queens and snuff parties. And nearly all these events are free. Given the lavatorial origins of the place, its toilets are far from bog standard, since the loobicles have glass doors that magically frost over when you lock them.

WC, The Pavement, Clapham Common, London SW4 7AA
Although these premises at Clapham Common tube station were originally a public loo, the restaurant claims that its initials stand for “Wine & Charcuterie”. But it has acknowledged its lavatorial origins by retaining the original Edwardian tiled walls and mosaic flooring and by recycling wooden loo cubicle doors  as tables. Unfortunately, the WC website pays more attention to its poncy design than to providing useful information, so that (at the time of writing) you can’t even use it to find the address.

Restaurant Story, 199 Tooley Street, Bermondsey, London SE1 2JX
This former Victorian poo palace, just off Tower Bridge Road, is now an overpriced restaurant, themed around books and stories, with pretentious tasting menus and a Michelin star awarded in 2013. Unlike some other loo conversions, it tries to forget its past and does not have a toilet-related theme. What it does have is a ridiculously long waiting list for table reservations and a ludicrously over-designed website that takes ages to access.

Bermondsey Arts Club, 102A Tower Bridge Road, Bermondsey, London SE1 4TP
From the street, this arty-farty hipster cocktail bar still looks like a public convenience — except that civic loos do not usually employ a muscular bouncer. Once you get past this intimidating presence, you descend steps typical of Victorian loos to reach an Art Deco-style bar that takes advantage of the original lav’s off-white tiles and ornate marble clad cubicle separators. Like WC and Story, the Bermondsey Art Club has an overblown website dedicated to showing off its designer’s skills rather than providing useful information. (As an aside, I am glad to note that one of the bar’s cocktails is called “Oaxaca Old Fashioned”, using the correct spelling of Oaxaca rather than resorting to the cowardly phonetic bastardisation chosen by the Wahaca restaurant chain.)

Brooksby’s Walk, 77 Brooksby’s Walk, Hackney, London E9 6DA
This 1930s Art Deco public toilet reopened in 2013 as a short-lived community café, “the Convenience”, before metamorphosing into the current restaurant and bar. If you wish to eat while sitting on the loo — i.e., on the building’s roof — it has a popular roof terrace that catches the sun pretty much all day. If the weather is bad, you eat indoors where the men’s urinals once stood. The former ladies’ loos are now unisex toilets, open to the public as well as to customers. Brooksby’s Walk is another restaurant with an over-designed website — which is so bad that (at the time of writing) some text on the home page is not only unreadable but also only vaguely discernible.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 2 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London NW5 1NR
Opened in January 2015, this K-Town venue, opposite the Kentish Town Forum, is situated in a disused — or, as its website worryingly states, a “once disused” — Victorian subterranean lavatory. The space has been renovated into a high-end cocktail lounge, catering for for about 50 clients in two dimly lit rooms (one of them really tiny) with a small bar between them. Toilet signs and cistern-lined walls remind you of its history. The place seems to have trouble deciding on its name: its street-level entrance sign says “Ladies & Gents”, its Twitter name is @ladyandgentsbar and its website, although called, refers only to “L&G” or “Ladies & Gentlemen” (and on one page “Ladies and Gentleman [sic]”).

The Attendant, 27a Foley Street, London W1W 6DY
This Fitzrovia coffee shop and sandwich bar was once a grandiose Victorian gentlemen’s lavatory. Built in about 1890, it closed in the 1960s and was mothballed for more than 50 years before reopening as the boho chic Attendant in 2013. It still has its original chequered floor tiles and white wall tiles, and its pretty Doulton & Co porcelain urinals are now used to divide a long bar table into individual booths.

Rosebery Rooms, Basement, 168 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1R 5DE
My final loo-conversion offering is not a bar or restaurant but a spa, where you may wish to take a break if feeling pooped. Housed in a former poo palace in Clerkenwell, this “intimate, underground escape space” offers a range of massages, facials, etc. You might therefore call it a comfort station. Perhaps appropriately, in view of the site’s original function, one of the treatments on offer is colonic irrigation (although the proprietors prefer to call it “colon hydrotherapy”).

Day of the toilet

unknownOK, so the heading on this blog says the theme is grumbling about Britain’s public lavatories. But in this posting I’ll be grumbling about the inadequacy of loo provision — public and private — in much of the rest of the world.

Today, 19 November 2016, is World Toilet Day, dedicated to raising awareness about the 2.4 billion people around the world — nearly a third of the global population — who lack access to adequate sanitary facilities. On this day the global community is asked to stand up (or sit down or squat, if they prefer) and do something about it.

Why 19 November? That was the date in 2001 on which the first World Toilet Summit was held and the World Toilet Organization was founded. The founders recognised that an international day would help draw global attention to the sanitation crisis, and they chose 19 November for the obvious reason. And in 2013, the United Nations came on board, making 19 November an official UN day, with the aim of promoting public awareness of the need for adequate toilets to improve health and save lives.

The world has a population of seven billion and more than one billion of them have to defaecate in the open because of a lack of proper loos. The countries where open defaecation is most widespread are also those that have the highest numbers of under-five child deaths — in addition to high levels of under-nutrition and poverty. The UN deems the practice of open-air defaecation as “extremely harmful” to public health, and estimates that providing proper toilets could save the lives of more than 200,000 children.

Not surprisingly, the UN has made sanitation a global development priority. Its Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target that by 2030 there should be access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and an end to open defecation, “paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations”.

Toilets and jobs

This year’s World Toilet Day has the theme “Toilets and jobs”, focusing on the impact of inadequate sanitation on people’s livelihoods. Good access to toilets, says the UN, not only improves health and protects people’s safety and dignity (particularly for women and girls) but it also increases productivity, creates jobs and grows economies.

A report in 2010 found that a lack of toilets at work and at home has a severe effect on businesses through poor health, absenteeism, attrition, reduced concentration, exhaustion and decreased productivity. Studies also indicate that illnesses caused by inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene practice lead to a loss of productivity that in many countries costs up to 5 per cent of GDP. And, according to the International Labour Organization, the transmission of such diseases at work causes 17 per cent of all workplace deaths.

To find out more, go to See also and

Annoyingly tiny WC cubicles

Tinys WCs

And another thing.

I get annoyed by the cramped WC cubicles found in some lavatorial establishments. One example, sadly, is to be found in the loos at the local medical practice with which I am registered.

Now I have no complaints about the healthcare services on offer. In recent years all the physicians and nurses with whom I have come into contact have been superb, and the reception staff are helpful and well-trained — nothing like the traditional “dragon at the door” who does everything possible to protect the doctors from contact with their patients. The practice also uses up-to-date technology, with online booking of appointments, touchscreen check-in facilities, computerised patient records, etc.

In fact the only annoying feature of this GP practice (apart from the inadequate and badly designed car park, which is not relevant here) is the shockingly inefficient lavatorial facilities.

The gents’ bog features two WCs. Since no urinals have been provided, male patients must use a WC even just for a quick pee. But the cubicles are so ridiculously small that the edge of the inward-opening door passes within about an inch of the loo seat, making it impossible just to walk in and swing the door closed behind you. Since the cubicles are also too narrow to allow you to stand to one side of the WC pan while closing the door, the only practical procedure is as follows:

  • Open the door
  • Step in and turn around to face outwards
  • Spread your legs apart
  • Waddle backwards, straddling the loo pan, while leaning to one side to avoid bashing your hip on the bog paper dispenser
  • Having retreated far enough, swing the door closed and lock it
  • Waddle forward again until clear of the loo pan
  • Turn around (or sit down) and do what you came in for

Mission accomplished, you can only escape the cubicle by going through the same awkward process in reverse. And if you happen to be carrying a large bag or a coat, the procedure outlined above becomes even more of a problem.

I assume that the women’s conveniences, which are situated directly above the gents on the next floor, are similarly laid out (I do not say “designed” because that would be an insult to designers) and are therefore equally inconvenient. But particularly annoying from the male point of view is that a two-WC arrangement is neither necessary nor appropriate in a gent’s loo, since most punters only need a pee.

Within the space available it would have been perfectly possible to install a urinal alongside a single WC that could have been housed in a cubicle of a more sensible size. In any case, other than a slightly increased cost, there is no reason why the cubicles could not have been built deeper by 30cm (12in) or more. Alternatively, their doors could have been hinged to open outwards rather than inwards.

Sadly, this is by no means a unique example of poor WC design. A search of the internet even finds images of WCs so cramped that a wedge has had to be carved out of the door to allow it to swing past the loo pan.

Paper towels vs hot air hand-dryers

Public bogs almost invariably feature electric hot air hand-dryers, which are generally assumed to be more hygienic than other hand-drying methods. But this is not true.

Research has shown that paper towels win hands down (as it were): they dry your hands more quickly, they remove more bacteria and they are less likely to lead to cross-contamination. The hospitals I have found myself visiting recently seem to acknowledge these research findings because paper towels are the norm in their loos. Unfortunately, most other bogs accessible to the public do not offer this hygienic choice.

The popular idea that hot air dryers are more hygienic seems to be just a marketing ploy. These machines are presumably attractive to loo providers because their installation means not having to make arrangements for replenishing stocks of clean towels and disposing of soiled towels.

So what are the facts?

  • Speed of drying Research suggests that 10 seconds of drying with a paper towel is as effective as at least 40 seconds using a standard hot air hand dryer. Jet air dryers, however, dry your hands as quickly as paper towels.
  • Removing bacteria Although a hot air machine will dry your hands, it will not remove many of the bacteria that have survived the washing process. One study found that paper towels reduce the number of all types of bacteria but hot air dryers somehow increase their number, while jet air dryers increase the number of some but not all. Another study found that rubbing the hands together under a hot air dryer actually prevents the removal of bacteria and leaves you with more bacteria on your hands than if you had not used the dryer at all. This study also found that 10 seconds under a jet air dryer was more effective at removing bacteria than 30 seconds using a normal hot air dryer. However, using a paper towel was easily the best method of removing bacteria, especially from the fingertips.
  • Cross-contamination Because a hot air hand dryer take so long to get your hands completely dry, you may well leave the bog with your paws still a little damp. Since bacteria are more likely to be passed from wet skin than from dry skin, this increases the risk of spreading infection. In environments where people may be vulnerable to infection, such as hospitals, thorough attention to hand drying could therefore save lives. Studies have also shown that, unlike towels, hot air hand dryers disperse bacteria into the air, thereby putting other bog-users at risk. A typical hot air dryer can spread bacteria up to a metre (that’s more than three feet, for American readers), while jet air dryers can spread them up to two metres (six feet).

The most important thing to remember is that, whatever facilities may be provided, you should both wash and dry your hands as thoroughly as possible before going on your way.

Wacky washroom “solution”

My previous posting was concerned with the fact that after using a public bog you can rarely wash your hands in water at an agreeable temperature. There is, however, one hand-washing appliance that does allow you to clean your mitts in comfortably warm water. Unfortunately, this contraption is also one of the most annoying features of the loos in which it is installed.

I refer to the automated “hand wash/dryers” manufactured by a certain company that promotes itself as a supplier of “washroom solutions”. (Personally, I would never patronise any business that applies the cringeworthy term “solutions” to its products or services.)


This is how the machines work:

  • Stage One You thrust your hands into a hole in the wall. The machine senses their presence and ejects a glob of liquid soap. If you are lucky, the soap lands on your hands. If not, there is nothing you can do about it other than to let the machine complete its one-minute cycle so that you can try again.
  • Stage Two The machine drizzles warmish water for a predetermined time, which may be either too long for your needs or too short. And if you still have soap on your hands when the water stops dribbling, then again there is nothing you can do about it other than to wait for the machine to complete its one-minute cycle and start again, while trying to avoid the next gloop of soap.
  • Stage Three Finally, the machine blows a mild stream of warm air for a fixed time. If your hands are still damp when your allotted time is up, then once more there is nothing you can do about it other than to start the one-minute cycle again, while this time avoiding both the soap and the water.

These wacky “washroom solutions” are a lamentable feature of one of my local shopping haunts, the Broadwalk Centre in Edgware. I cannot comment on the ladies’ lavatorial facilities, but the gentlemen’s loo, despite having accommodation for as many as five customers seated and five standing, boasts just three of these machines, one of which is positioned so low that an adult would have to kneel to use it.

IMG_2387What makes these crappy features even more lamentable is the appearance in 2017 of labels stating “HYGIENE NOTICE. Please note these are NOT urinals”.

And while you are going through the enforced and tiresome 60-second wash/dry process, it is no surprise that other bog users give up waiting to use the machine and walk out with unwashed hands. By doing so, they clearly negate the manufacturer’s boast that its products “maximise hygiene”.

On the other hand, the fact that people won’t bother to queue for the machine probably justifies the company’s claim that its products provide significant savings on energy and water. Deterring people from washing their hands certainly reduces the need for both energy and water.

A time-wasting machine that prevents anyone from washing their hands until the previous user has finished drying is not a “washroom solution”. Surely it makes sense to provide separate washing and drying facilities so that users can choose for themselves how thoroughly they wash their hands and then how well they dry them? If the Broadwalk bogs offered three normal sinks and a couple of regular hand-dryers, there would be no problem.

Water hot or cold, but rarely warm

In my previous posting I wrote about the mystery of bog paper sizes in public loos. Another mystery crops up when it comes to washing your hands after making use of the toilet facilities.

It makes sense for public bogs to install mixer taps (for American readers, that’s mixer faucets) so that customers can wash their hands in water at a temperature to their own liking. However, British public loos usually have separate taps for hot and cold water, probably because two bog-standard taps cost less to buy and install than a mixer tap. Even so, you should be able to mix a sinkful of warm water, shouldn’t you?

Yes, you should. But you rarely can because almost invariably the sink plug was stolen soon after the sink was installed and has never replaced. You therefore have to wash your hands under running water that is either icy cold or boiling hot, depending on which tap you choose. (Or in many case the choice is between icy cold and icy cold, despite the “H” or red blob displayed on one of the taps.)

A plugless sink offering only dangerously hot water

A plugless sink offering dangerously hot water

And another thing. A further mystery is the increasingly frequent appearance of notices warning “Caution. Hot water”. Why? If the water is scaldingly hot, then the owner of the bog should surely be able to adjust the heating control to reduce it to an acceptable level. But I suspect that these signs are just another manifestation of the “health and safety gone mad” phenomenon, which leads service providers to protect themselves from even the remotest risk of legal action by scaring their customers with alarmist warnings.

Weird-sized sheets of bog paper

Most of the world is familiar with the international standard sizes for paper. Letters are usually written on A4-size paper (210mm by 297mm). Magazines tend to have the same dimensions. And leaflets are frequently A4 sheets either folded in three (201mm x 99mm) or made into A5 booklets (210mm by 148mm).

(These observations do not, of course, apply to the United States of America, which has persistently failed to adopt the international standards that almost every other nation has embraced.)

But when it come to bog paper, there seems to be no international standard sizes — although in few countries, such as Germany, manufacturers have settled on sheets of format A6 (148mm by 105mm). The bumwipe we normally use in my own household (Costco’s Kirkland Signature, if you must know) has sheets measuring 125mm by 110mm. Other UK brands for domestic use have similar dimensions: for example, Andrex has an average sheet size of 124mm x 104mm, while Sainsbury’s own brand seems to be a fraction larger at 125mm x 105mm.

But here’s the crazy thing. What really puzzles me is that many British public bogs offer us sheets of toilet paper of weird dimensions. It is not unusual to find that the loo rolls are perforated to provide sheets that are more than three times the length of the typical domestic product. In the interest of scientific research, I recently liberated a length of bog roll from a local shopping centre and found that each sheet was a mere 90mm wide but more than 390mm long. (For those who only understand US Customary Units, that is just three-and-a-half inches wide but fifteen-and-a-half inches long.)

Please, someone, tell me why! Who needs to wipe their bum with sheets so long and so narrow?