Lack of Public Toilets is a Threat to Health in the UK

It is still taboo to talk about bladder problems and toileting. However, not every disability is visible, which makes access to public toilets vital.

Many people have to plan their activities or schedules around toileting, such as drivers, the elderly or people with small children. Shockingly, the number of toilet facilities in the UK have fallen by 40 percent in the past decade. An article in 2016 reported that this drop is due to councils claiming they do not have the funds. The Around the Toilet Project raised awareness of how a lack of access to toilets that are functional can restrict the journeys people are able to make. The study found toilet provision in the UK to be inadequate for a large selection of people. It raised awareness of the lack of public toilets and the need for accessible designs and different attitudes. Tim Muffett spoke to a couple who fell victim to loo cutbacks. Brian Dean is one of the millions of people affected by a lack of toilets around the UK. He suffers Parkinson’s Disease and describes how he felt humiliated after he couldn’t find a public toilet to use. His wife Joan even asked four different shops in Manchester if he could use their toilets, only to be faced with refusal. Although some businesses, such as Starbucks, have opted to let anyone use their toilets, many shops are still reluctant to let people use their toilets unless they're spending money

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Lack of Public Toilets and Our Health

On 23rd May 2019, a report warned that a lack of public toilets in the UK is forcing many people to stay at home, threatening the health of the nation. The Royal Society for Public Health announced that more than 700 council run facilities have closed since 2010. Experts have identified a link between lack of public toilets and the rise of obesity in the UK. Shirly Cramer, Chief Executive stated, "It is deeply concerning that, amidst a national obesity crisis, at a time when public health policy is to encourage outdoor exercise, our declining public toilet provision is in fact encouraging more people to stay indoors." The survey found three in four adults (74%) believe that there aren’t enough toilets in their area. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 stated that a lack of facilities deters them from leaving home as often as they desire. This is particularly prominent in people with medical conditions that leave them needing frequent toilet visits, such as Diabetes, nerve problems and Prostatitis. More than 2 in 5 people who need frequent toilet visits said this was the case. Gaynor Monk, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome suffers from a kidney problem which means she has to self-catheterise. She explains, “I don’t go out at all sometimes for fear of not being able to use a toilet, especially if I’m going somewhere different.” Gayner attends a bowel clinic run by clinical nurse specialist Kelly Stackhouse, explaining “a lot of my patients feel socially isolated because of the lack of public toilets available.”  

The inability to satisfy essential physiological needs because no toilet is available contributes to health issues such as urinary tract infections, kidney infections and digestive health issues that can easily escalate. Studies have shown that refraining from using the toilet frequently can irritate the bladder and lead to infection. Problems such as constipation and other digestive health issues often also stem from a lack of toilet visits, particularly in children. Mental well-being is also improved when people are out with friends and are aware a toilet is available. Justin Parkinson asserts in a BBC New Article, “having decent public toilets is good for public health, business and the prevention of disease. It’s civilised.”

 

 

What Should be Required from Public Toilets?

According to incontinence specialist Karen Logan, “Toilets should be accessible, clean light and safe, with good handwashing facilities- fairly simple requirements that a lot of toilets do not provide”. By offering appropriate customer toilets, retail stores and shopping centres can enhance their profits and image, however many retailers pay insufficient attention to their customer toilet facilities. She adds that toilet facilities must be fitted with self-closing devices on all approach doors and be adequately provided with toilet paper, soap and towels. To provide a reliable service, we not only need to ensure more toilets are accessible, but we need to look at who does and doesn’t have access. As Lezlie Lowe states, “we need to look hard at who in our cities has ample access, who’s merely making do and who is squatting between parked cars.”

A number of organisations are passionate about improving the provision of public toilets. The Department of Health and Ageing maintains the National Public Toilet Map to enable the public to find the closest facility. The British Toilet Association, alongside organisations including the Gt British Toilet Map, are promoting the “Use our Loos” Campaign. The campaign is asking for more loos in businesses to be made publicly available, and address “toilet stigma”. They also aim to ensure publicly accessible loos are easily discoverable for those in need. Businesses who sign up will be added to the Great British Toilet Map, and will be provided with recognition and free cleaning products. Meanwhile, the Royal Society for Public Health is calling for government action to address this “neglect” towards basic facilities. Their recent report said providing public toilets should be “compulsory” in planning law. The RSPH has also called on the government to reverse funding cuts to councils, encouraging schemes to boost funding for public toilets. Chief executive Shirly Cramer states, “public toilets are no luxury; it’s high time we begin to see them as basic and essential parts of the community, that allow people to benefit from and engage with their surroundings.

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