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Getting Dirty in the Bathtub: Unchecked Bacteria Abound

Getting Dirty in the Bathtub: Unchecked Bacteria Abound

The picture of cuteness is a young child romping and splashing in the bathtub–little straining arms churning the otherwise placid tub water into a surge of micro-tsunamis threatening to upturn a small population of rubber duckies and toy boats, as violent thunderclaps are replaced by gleeful laughter. We have all witnessed this waterborne display of wholesome fun one time or another and, man is it the picture of sweetness. So I regret spoiling the fun with the rather grim news that, according to NYU microbiologist Dr. Phillip M. Tierno (the ultimate bathtub party pooper), your bathtub bound children are likely cavorting in a “bacterial soup.”

Dr. Tierno has a long record of crying foul and exposing all manner of germs and pathogens that thrive on household items like pillows and kitchen counters. He is the author of “The Secret Life of Germs: What They Are, Why We Need Them, and How We Can Protect Ourselves Against Them,” and, while an esteemed microbiologist, seemingly loves uncovering the dank and germy underbelly of our daily life. However, I will give him the benefit of the doubt about his recent Today show appearance where he warned that bathtubs, with all of their plastic toys and soggy playthings harbor fecal contaminants, such as E. coli and streptococcus, as well as staph aureus and other germs and viruses. These sorts of bacteria and pathogens seem to thrive in the warm and moist bathtub environment, and since they rarely dry out completely, they become breeding grounds for unseen and unchecked bacteria. “It’s filth,” Dr. Tierno claimed on Today, “The toys are the depository of these organisms.” Children pick up squeeze toys (rubber ducks and hollow toys are particularly lively breeding grounds for molds and bacteria) and squirt contaminated water into the tub, at themselves, or sometimes at their unwitting parents, making for a very unclean experience all around.

Thankfully, there are ways to mitigate this contamination. As a general rule, stay away from bath toys with cracks, crevices, and holes where bacterial growth can go unchecked, and avoid buying squeeze toys with holes that can trap and harbor bacteria. And of course, keeping the tub and bathroom clean is somewhat of a no-brainer (it is advised to keep the toilet seat down when flushing, as a certain amount of “toilet effluvia” and contaminated toilet water become aerosolized upon flushing). If you have some of these toys lying around, you could either chuck them, or diligently and regularly clean them with rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or a mixture of vinegar and water to kill any living organisms on the toys’ surfaces.

In general, I tend to not get caught up in the germaphobe culture that tends to dominate the parental mindset, but this particular report (with its relatively simple advisory) seemed to be more than sensible. So while you may not subscribe to the anti-bacterial mindset, minimizing the pathogens and bacteria in your child’s tubby seems like an obvious move in the right direction.

Has anyone had any experiences in this realm they would like to share? The reader with the grossest and most repugnant story gets a free set of (slightly used) bath toys sent directly to their home.

Read more: Babies, Bath & Shower, Bed & Bath, Children, Family, General Health, Parenting at the Crossroads

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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4:52AM PDT on Sep 18, 2012

Sue and Mr C: Do you know what mortality rates our ancestors had? Most children died as babies or toddlers, only the strongest survived!

4:51AM PDT on Sep 18, 2012


1:42AM PDT on Aug 22, 2012

Great article. Thanks.

1:38AM PDT on Aug 22, 2012

Bakterija ima svugdje,i u svemu.

8:27AM PST on Mar 7, 2011

forgive me ... I have little time, so I have just come to gather some points for the animals ...

9:54AM PDT on Aug 15, 2010

Yikes! However did we manage to

1:27PM PDT on Jul 9, 2010

all this bacteria hype makes you wonder how our ancestors even managed to mature enough to reproduce.

3:10AM PDT on Jun 6, 2010

Good points, thanks.

4:31PM PDT on Jun 5, 2010

Thanks for tips Eric.

6:12PM PDT on Jun 3, 2010

Years ago I volunteered at a day care for children 3 and under. We washed all the toys in a dishwasher. Thanks for the article.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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