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If you were to ask me how I came to set my toilet on fire, I would answer you in two simple words: Reader's Digest.

I am referring specifically to the February 1995 issue of Reader's Digest, which was sent to me by alert reader Jeff Jerrell, who had spotted a startling article originally written for Health magazine by Mary Roach.The article is about germs, which are extremely tiny organisms - many of them smaller than the artist formerly known as Prince - that can be found in huge quantities virtually everywhere. To get an idea of what I mean, conduct the following:


Get a microscope and some spit. Put the spit on a glass slide and put it under the microscope lens. Now look through the eyepiece. You'll notice, if you look closely, that you can't see anything, because you have no idea how to operate a microscope. But while you're looking, billions of germs, left on the eyepiece by the previous microscope user, will swarm onto your eyeball - which to them is a regular Club Med - and start reproducing like crazy via wild bacterial sex. You'll probably need surgery.

Getting back to Reader's Digest: The February article concerns leading University of Arizona germ scientist Chuck Gerba, Ph.D., who is a serious student of bacteria found in bathrooms. Consider the following absolutely true facts:

1. He routinely goes into public restrooms, unarmed, and takes bacteria samples from the toilets.

2. His son's middle name is "Escherichia," after Escherichia coli, also known as E. coli, which is a common type of fecal bacteria.

Needless to say, I had to call this man.

"You named your son after bacteria?" was my opening question.

"He finds that it's a good conversation starter," Gerba replied. "If we'd had a girl, we were going to name her `Sally Salmonella.' "

Gerba told me that there are definite hazards associated with his line of study.

"When you spend a lot of time taking samples on your knees in the stalls of public restrooms," he said, "people tend to call the cops on you. I've had to do some fast talking. I tell the cops, `It's OK! I'm a scientist!' And they say, `Yeah, right, we arrested a couple of scientists in this stall just last night.' "

Gerba told me that, in the course of his studies, he's learned some Amazing Toilet Facts:

TOILET FACT NO. 1 - Based on scientific measurements of the holes in public-toilet seats, Americans have the biggest fannies in the world.

TOILET FACT NO. 2 - In any group of public toilets, the first stall is likely to have the least bacteria, and the middle ones are likely to have the most, because more people use them. (In determining the rate of usage, Gerba went into public toilets and NUMBERED THE TOILET PAPER SQUARES.)

TOILET FACT NO. 3 - The cleanest public toilets are found in national-chain restaurants; the worst are found in gas stations.

"I'm surprised," Gerba said, "that no new life form has ever evolved from a gas-station toilet."

TOILET FACT NO. 4 - Every toilet user leaves a unique bacterial pattern; we know this thanks to a breakthrough technique Gerba developed called (I am not making any of this up) the Commode-A-Graph.

"If there's ever a crime committed on a toilet," Gerba said, "I can tell you who did it."

(Asked if this technique could be a factor in the O.J. Simpson trial, Gerba replied, "Not unlesshe washed his hands in the toilet.")

TOILET FACT NO. 5 - When you flush, a process called "aerosolization" takes place, in which the toilet shoots out an invisible cloud of tiny, germ-infested water droplets that get all over everything. In Reader's Digest, author Roach quotes Gerba as saying that if you keep your toothbrush within six feet of a commode, "you're basically brushing your teeth with toilet water."

So we see that a toilet is really nothing more than - to use scientific parlance - a Yuck Bomb. The question is, what can you do about it? Is there any way to get a toilet REALLY clean? This brings us to the truly fascinating part of Roach's article, wherein Gerba and his family, demonstrating the only way to kill all the bacteria, put laboratory alcohol on their commode bowl and - this is right on Page 64 of Reader's Digest, if you don't believe me - set it on fire.

Let me stress right here that Gerba is a recognized toilet expert, and he had a fire extinguisher ready, and toilet-torching is VERY dangerous. You, the layperson, would be an irresponsible idiot to try it.

Fortunately, I am not a lay-per-son; I am a trained humor columnist, and if there's one thing I enjoy, it's a clean toilet. So I tried Gerba's technique, and I have to say that, in a darkened room, a flaming toilet has a strange kind of beauty that can only be described as "a strange kind of beauty."

I'm tempted to speculate here on whether it might be possible to use this same technique to kill bacteria on other surfaces, such as the bodies of Tobacco Institute scientists, but I think I'm already in enough trouble as it is. So let me leave you with these important Toilet Health Reminders: Avoid those middle stalls; Move that toothbrush; and above all Don't sit down until the bowl has completely cooled.