Study: Americans Don't Wash Their Hands Enough

ByDaniel Q. Haney

T O R O N T O, Sept. 19, 2000 -- Apparently the city that never sleeps is also toobusy to wash up. A new survey of public restroom habits in fiveU.S. cities finds New York commuters are least likely to cleantheir hands after using the restroom.  

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

‘Clean Hands Campaign’ Fails

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the Findings

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

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

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

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

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

Wash Up to Stop the Spread of Colds

Microbiology officials released the data at their annual meetingin Toronto. Without belaboring the obvious, they said that peoplereally should wash up after using a public restroom, no matter whatthey do in there. It’s just an environment where people are likelyto encounter a lot of germs, especially the ones that causediarrhea.

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

Both years, the survey found similar differences in hand-washinghabits in the five cities. However, the researchers are not surewhat to make of this. Of course, folks in some places may truly becleaner than others. But other factors could also help explain thedifference, such as how crowded the restrooms are, how clean orfilthy they are and how big a rush people are in.

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