The curious case of the barbecue and the toilet seat.

Bbq chicken wings

The prospect of a weekend with some warmer weather sends us Brits in to a frenzy of outdoor eating. So, in this spirit, and ignoring the light rain, I went searching for our barbecue and found it under a pile of old flowerpots in the garden store. As I struggled to extract the barbecue from the tangle of pea sticks and garden tools, I noticed our neighbour watching me. I imagined he was admiring my skill as I flicked the rat droppings out of last year’s spent charcoal. I soon found otherwise when he pointed to the rusting grill and said “Have you seen the report?”

“What report?” I answered.

“Showing that those things are dirtier than your toilet seat”. As he said this, he stabbed the air with his finger in the general direction of the barbecue and backed away.

Toilet seat 600x980

It took me a while to regain my composure as he filled me in on some of the details of “the report”.

He had been reading an article in the Daily Mail: The average British barbecue contains TWICE as many germs as a toilet seat.

The article claims startling figures. According to the Mail, a barbecue harbours 1.7 million microbes per 100 cm2, making it the grubbiest surface in the garden. By comparison, a toilet seat has only 759,950 microbes per 100 cm2 (curious readers will want to know why this figure is quoted with so much precision). Also dirtier than toilet seats are bin lids with 1.2 million microbes per 100 cm2, posing a risk to householders when they put their rubbish out. The article continues helpfully to add that microbes in the garden include E. coli, salmonella and listeria, all of which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. So, the message seems to be: keep out of your garden, it’s one of the riskiest places around and certainly don’t cook or eat there.

But how did they get these figures for the numbers of microbes? It turns out that they were the work of Dr Lisa Ackerley, “one of the UK’s leading food safety experts”. I assume Dr Lisa, as she likes to be called, didn’t do the legwork herself. I imagine she sent one of her minions to do the spying on people’s barbecues and toilet seats. I have this image of a person with a clipboard kitted out with a white coat and rubber gloves turning up at someone’s house and demanding to sample the microbes on toilet seats and barbecues. Yes, the householder says meekly, I would be happy for you come and swab my toilet and my barbecue; apparently 1400 householders agreed to undergo this intrusion.

So far so good but, If you are a scientist, you now want to ask all sorts of silly questions. How was this work standardised, when was the barbecue (and the toilet) last used, how often are they cleaned, were any statistical tests done, and so on. Because actually this report is a load of rubbish and it’s a disgrace that someone with a PhD associates themselves with such an article. I don’t believe this kind of work tells us anything about food hygiene and it goes a long way to undermine confidence in science. Bacteria on the barbecue are unlikely to be a problem if you get it nice and hot and in my opinion, there is a far greater potential health risk from undercooked meat.

But then you read another of Dr Lisa’s statements where she stresses the potential dangers of the garden adding menacingly, “Using an appropriate disinfectant could significantly reduce the risks and lead to a healthier, safer outdoor experience for all”. And suddenly you realise what is going on. The study was paid for by the disinfectant company, Jeyes and it’s all really a sales promotion. So, if I douse my barbecue with Jeyes Fluid it will be safer. The meat will taste disgusting but we don’t care about that.

I keep asking myself how an article like this gets written. Do they just take the Press Release and add a few scary statements? I suppose they do but in this case they have also changed the facts slightly. Reading Dr Lisa’s blog, I find out that she didn’t actually test barbecues, she tested barbecue preparation areas. The Mail has form on this kind of fact-changing and it’s very misleading.

But why does the Mail choose to publish this pseudo-scientific guff? I don’t believe that it’s just careless journalism; I think they are out to unsettle their readers and to undermine their trust in science. The toilet seat/barbecue article is just part of a wider project in the Mail to rank the dirt on various items. Their reference in this project is the toilet seat (should we call this the bog standard?) and they claim that carpets, computer keyboards, kitchen sinks, kitchen sponges and mobile phones are all dirtier than toilets. You could worry about this and fanatically clean the dirty items or you could just shrug your shoulders and get on with life.

If, as a Daily Mail reader, you spend time worrying about the cleanliness of your barbecue (or mobile phone etc), it means that you don’t spend time worrying about more important issues like politics or world affairs. Depending on your point of view, this is either a form of therapy or a form of brainwashing.

By contrast, the reader who dismisses the findings may well be acting sensibly. The Mail, however, publishes a lot of these pseudoscience articles dressed up with dubious statistics and gravitas supplied by a named scientist. A problem then arises if this is your only contact with science and scientists. You may end up dismissing most of their utterances and you may come to mistrust both science and scientists; but perhaps that’s what the Mail wants.

About Philip Strange

After more than 30 years as an experimental scientist, I decided to have a complete change and moved to the West Country. I now write about science for several magazines and web sites and blog at
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11 Responses to The curious case of the barbecue and the toilet seat.

  1. cromercrox says:

    There are more coliform bacteria per unit volume in the skulls of Dail Mail readers than in the average lower bowel. Having said that, 876 out of every 134 people are innumerate.

  2. Yes, but how many neurones are there?

    • aeon says:

      And how would they decide to spell them?

      • There are, and I say this with confidence, a lot.

        I used to tell people that C. elegans (an elegant little roundworm) was wonderful to study because if you counted all the neurons in its nervous system, you’d be done in about five minutes. By contrast, if you did the same thing with a human, your great-great grandchildren would have to finish the job for you.

        I suspect I’m off-topic now.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Notwithstanding inasmuch as which the revelation that for every human cell in the human body, there are ten bacteria. After learning that I decided to go with the hygiene hypothesis – germs are just a part of us, and there is such a thing as being paranoid about them.

  4. stephenemoss says:

    It would indeed be quite something for even the most hardened thermophile to survive the temperature of the average barbecue. I always seem to overdo the charcoal and end up manoeuvring the bangers and burgers around with one outstretched arm while shielding my face with the other. Of course, the mundane truth that barbecues are in fact quite safe – at least in terms of presenting a microbiological threat – wouldn’t make much of a story. And why is Dr Ackerley known as Dr Lisa? If you find the answer Dr Philip, then I, Dr Steve, would be interested to know.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    There was a similar scare story on BBC a few months ago. Then it was all about bacteria picked up by food that had fallen on the floor. Needless to say they didn’t do a comparison with food that had been in contact with a work surface or with plates that had been stored in a cupboard. But hey, why let science get in the way of a good story.

    • cromercrox says:

      I think there is something pathological about everyone’s obsession with hygiene. A bit of good clean old-fashioned dirt, in moderation, beefs up the jolly old immune system.

    • Laurence Cox: What I can’t understand is why the popular media are so keen to run these stories. Is it just sloppy journalism or is there another agenda?

      Cromercrox: shouldn’t we just be guided by common sense?

      • My guess is that it is that oldest of human vices – laziness. Pre-packaged story, likely provided by the sponsor (Jeyes) or its agent, requiring no effort in research or perhaps even writing.

        I remember another example of this from a few years ago – a story about the efforts to wash the roof of Toronto’s Skydome (a.k.a. “Rogers Centre”). While pitched as a kind of human-interest story about the people doing it, it was really an advertisement for the detergent they were using, and like your BBQ story was funded by that company.

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