NCBI ROFL: Airplane vacuum toilets: an uncommon travel hazard.

By ncbi rofl | July 28, 2011 7:00 pm

“Each year, millions of people travel aboard airplanes and cruise ships. A significant portion of the newer larger airplanes (the Boeing 767 and the Aerobus) and cruise ships now have vacuum toilet systems. There have been no reports in the medical literature on the frequency of injuries associated with the use of these toilets, but serious injury, including soft tissue trauma and organ evisceration, may be associated with the use of such devices.) The investigators report a case of significant perineal injury accompanied by hypotension associated with the use of a vacuum toilet on an airplane.

A 37-year-old white female was using a vacuum toilet on board an airplane. The toilet seat was upright. The woman was sitting directly on the commode. After flushing while still seated, she experienced pain in the perineal area. She was unable to remove herself from the toilet because of the created suction and she required assistance from the flight attendants. The patient experienced vaginal bleeding, and bright red blood was noted in the toilet. Paramedics were called when the plane landed. There was no diversion of the aircraft…

…Two risk factors for vacuum toilet injury can be detailed. First, obese patients may completely occlude the opening of the toilet, and second, improper use of a vacuum toilet may also contribute to the creation of suction. The patient in our case had raised the toilet seat and was seated directly on the toilet rim, which may have resulted in a stronger occlusive seal. A contributing factor may have been proximal muscle girdle weakness (which can be present in patients with neuromuscular diseases and the elderly). This could prevent a person from freeing themselves from the toilet.

There are no warning signs against flushing vacuum toilets while remaining seated. The only warning sign for the toilet is a multilingual sign that states the following in English: “Flushing toilet -please do not put objects such as paper towels, diapers, or air sickness bags in toilet.” Although this type of injury appears to be uncommon, responsible agencies (e.g., the FAA) are e couraged to document future incidents, educate flight attendants for the potential for injury when vacuum toilets are used, post a warning sticker about improper use of toilet seats, and encourage a redesign of the toilet so that flushing is not possible while the user remains seated.”

Photo: flickr/glenmcbethlaw

Related content:
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Horrified hot tub is horrified.
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: The collapse of toilets in Glasgow.
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Ready…set…GO (to the bathroom).

WTF is NCBI ROFL? Read our FAQ!

  • Lyle Kim

    Could you tell me what investigators you are referring to who reported the injuries.
    On the Mythbusters Pilot program they looked into the myth of a woman being stuck to a vacuum toilet and proved that it could not occur as the person would have to be so large to seal the top of the toilet that they would not actually fit onto the plane.
    Vacuum toilets are now being used in far more areas, like trains, prisons, green buildings that I am sure people would be interested if what you are saying is actually a fact and not a myth.

  • Alan Dove

    If you click on the image above, it’ll take you to the primary reference in the biomedical literature. That’s how this blog works. In case you can’t or won’t do that, the reference is Meldon S, Hargarten S, “Airplane Vacuum Toilets: An Uncommon Travel Hazard,” J Travel Med. 1994 Jun 1;1(2):104-105. Meldon and Hargarten are (or at least were in 1994) at the Metro Health Medical Center, Emergency Medicine Department, Cleveland, OH.

    Mythbusters should’ve checked the literature.

  • William

    One problem with that MythBusters episode was that the vacuum being supplied to the toilet in their tests was occurring too slowly to adhere the fake behind to the bowl. A vacuum toilet setup has the sewage tank at a -3 to -8 psi vacuum (depending on the design and the current altitude of the plane) and thus instantly creates a super intense suction when the flush valve is opened.
    If the MythBusters wanted to test it correctly, they should have obtained a tank, connected it to the toilet, and pumped the air out to the necessary vacuum, then opened the flush valve when the fake behind was placed on the bowl.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Quirky, funny, and surprising science news from the edge of the known universe.

About ncbi rofl

NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl


See More

Collapse bottom bar