Study: Americans Don't Wash Their Hands Enough

Apparently the city that never sleeps is also too busy to wash up. A new survey of public restroom habits in five U.S. cities finds New York commuters are least likely to clean their hands after using the restroom.  

The results, released Monday, are the latest installment in the American Society for Microbiology’s effort to cajole folks into following Mom’s most basic hygiene advice.

‘Clean Hands Campaign’ Fails

Four years ago, the society sponsored a study to see how often people take time for soap and water in restrooms. Researchers stood around, endlessly combing their hair or putting on makeup, while watching what people did. Or didn’t do.

They found that about one-third of Americans skipped washing. So the society sponsored a “clean hands campaign” to educate folks about the importance of hand washing in stopping the spread of colds, diarrhea and other infectious diseases.

This month, they did the survey again. The result: Not much has changed. If anything, Americans are even slightly more slovenly than they were in 1996. Especially in New York City, it seems.

Four years ago, 60 percent of folks using the rest rooms at Grand Central and Penn stations washed up afterward. This time, it was just 49 percent.

To the microbiology society, made up of infection control experts, this is serious business. “Fifteen seconds of soap and water and rubbing your hands is a wonderful way to get germs off. We are not making a lot of progress,” said microbiologist Judy Daly of Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, the society’s secretary.

Besides the New York train stations, the observers peeked at bathroom habits at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the Navy Pier in Chicago, an Atlanta Braves baseball game and a casino in New Orleans.

Among the Findings

Overall, 67 percent of people washed with soap and water and then dried their hands.

The cleanest people were in Chicago, where 83 percent washed, followed by 80 percent in San Francisco and 64 percent in New Orleans and Atlanta.

Women were generally more likely than men to wash. The dirtiest guys of all were at the Atlanta ball game. Just one-third stopped to wash.

In a random telephone survey conducted at the same time, 95 percent of Americans claimed they wash their hands after using public restrooms.

In the survey, about three-quarters of people said they also wash before handling food or after changing a diaper.

Wash Up to Stop the Spread of Colds

Microbiology officials released the data at their annual meeting in Toronto. Without belaboring the obvious, they said that people really should wash up after using a public restroom, no matter what they do in there. It’s just an environment where people are likely to encounter a lot of germs, especially the ones that cause diarrhea.

“It’s cheap, it’s easy to do, and it works,” noted Dr. Julie Gerberding of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If we were really compulsive about washing our hands, we could have a lot less colds.”

Both years, the survey found similar differences in hand-washing habits in the five cities. However, the researchers are not sure what to make of this. Of course, folks in some places may truly be cleaner than others. But other factors could also help explain the difference, such as how crowded the restrooms are, how clean or filthy they are and how big a rush people are in.

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