Hand-washing habits need some cleaning up

What if someone told you that the key to limiting your exposure to most types of cold and flu viruses was as close as your fingertips? Is the thought of making it through the fall and winter with fewer achy joints, watery eyes, scratchy throats or coughs enough incentive to pause (say 15 seconds) for the simple act of washing your hands with hot soapy water a couple of times during the day? Apparently, many Americans don’t seem to think it’s worth the extra effort.

Recently the American Society for Microbiology commissioned Wirthlin Worldwide to perform a study of the public restroom habits of Americans in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans and Atlanta. Their assignment was to observe the bathroom exiting behavior of nearly 8,000 people using public facilities in places like the subway and Atlanta’s baseball stadium.

Specifically, researchers were documenting whether — or not — individuals stopped at the sink for a little soap and water action following a visit to the toilet. Their findings are enough to cause the phobic among us a lifetime of sleepless nights. In New York, researchers found that less than 50 percent of their subjects used the sink — the number jumped to 83 percent in Chicago but settled somewhere around 67 percent nationwide. Women appear to be cleaner (at 75 percent) than their male counterparts, who paused to wash only 58 percent of the time.

The ironic part is that surveyors also telephoned over 1,000 people asking them if they washed up after using the bathroom, changing a diaper or petting a dog. Over the phone, nine out of ten claimed to wash their hands after performing these tasks. Hmm, seems to be a pretty large disconnect between words and action here, folks.

If the thought of limiting exposure to colds and flu isn’t incentive enough, perhaps a simple mental exercise may provide the necessary motivation. Take a moment to think through a typical day, considering the number of times you touch something that’s been touched by someone else. Let’s see, the cart at the grocery store, the pen dangling from the chain at the bank, the handle on a door, or a public telephone — you get the idea. Now, think about the number of times that item has been used by someone else in the past 24 hours. Finally, stop to consider the fact that only two out of three people using that device washed their hands after using the restroom. Yikes.

Before you don a pair of rubber gloves for a dash to the store for antibacterial soap and germ killer, the hand washing we’re suggesting doesn’t require any special equipment. And, you don’t even need to chemically compromise the first layer of your epidermis to get the job done. If you begin by dispensing a clean towel prior to turning on the water on and then wash your hands with warm water and soap while singing the "Happy Birthday" song or reciting the ABCs (silently of course), then drying your hands thoroughly and using the paper towel to turn off the water and open the door, you’ll be following the American Society for Microbiology guidelines.

Remember, someone might be watching.

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