Thursday, December 09, 2004

Contrary to Popular Belief, Handwashing is Not Optional

If you have not gleaned it from these pages, you haven’t been reading closely enough: public lavatories frighten and confuse me. Perhaps because I am a germophobe.

Phew! There! I said it! It’s out there! I am a germophobe. I worry about E.Coli on almost every surface. I banished antibacterial soaps from my house because they actually contribute to bacterial resistance. I don’t touch the poles on the metro when I commute, and I wash my hands whenever I return home from running errands. Call me OCD, I don’t care.

Having said that, can all people of good hygiene please agree on one thing? “Handwashing” has a specific definition, and if you miss any essential element of that definition, you have not washed your hands. Essential elements: very warm water, soap, friction, time. Soap up, wash your hands vigorously in very warm water, create friction, and do it for at least 15 seconds.

I find it ironic that there is a great national hue and cry about the dearth of available flu vaccines and the consequent deleterious effects on the health and welfare of the public, when no one wants to listen to the simple truth: The best defense against catching a cold, flu or any of the various E.Colis that make you “ride the porcelain bus” for hours on end, is washing your hands properly after touching public spaces and especially after using the bathroom.

Yep, it really is just that simple.

So why do I still see the following types of handwashing malfeasance in public bathrooms (which makes you wonder what people do in their homes when they know that no one is watching them):

1) The Opt-Out. This is the most brazen of all handwashing crimes. Like that “Poppy’s Pizza” episode of Seinfeld, the person just leaves the bathroom with not a thought to washing their hands. It blows my mind when I see this and wonder what kind of parents the Opt-Outer has. Male or female, I think we can agree that the Opt-Out is disgusting. Total time: 0 seconds.

2) The Dabble. You know you’ve seen this one: you run your hands under the water, flick your fingers around a little bit to imitate the motions of actual handwashing, then leave. Makes the person think they’ve washed their hands when they have simply wet their hands. Total time: 6 seconds.

3) The Soapy Dabble. Slightly better than #2, but still only superficial: you put soap on your hands, run them under the water, flick your fingers around a little bit to imitate the motions of actual handwashing, then leave. The use of soap also makes the person think they have washed their hands when they have simply given the bacteria on their hands a nice, relaxing bubble bath that gets them in the mood to reproduce. Total time: 8 seconds.

4) The Thumbless. I busted MYSELF doing this one not long ago. When you wash your hands, check to see if you make a point of washing your thumbs. Probably not, right? Blue light tests of people who had just washed their hands showed a markedly higher level of bacteria on the backs of people’s thumbs than on their hands and fingers precisely because we don’t think to really focus on them. Total time: 6-8 seconds.

5) The Nice Try But No Cigar. You wash your hands properly but then you turn off the faucet with your hand rather than with the paper towel. I'll give you a second to wonder why.....okay...because what turns the faucet ON? The pre-wash/just out of the toilet/germy hand which you have just re-infected after doing such a nice handwashing job.

6) The Two Steps Back. Whether with a proper handwashing, a Dabble, a Soapy Dabble or a Thumbless, the Two Steps Back occurs when the person washes their hands and then puts them under one of those hot air dryers that many restrooms have instead of paper towels, ostensibly for “sanitary reasons.” You’ll be interested to know that those hot air dryers are not hot enough to kill any bacteria on your hands, and in fact are at the perfect temperature for bacteria multiplication. Tests have shown increased bacterial levels on hands dried under the hot air compared with those dried with towels. Whenever I travel and there is only an air dryer available, I just smile and tell myself , “That’s what jeans were invented for.” Total time: depends if you shake, air dry, or jeans dry.

So there it is. A Handwashing Litany of Shame. Have I missed any? These are all based, obviously, on my Jane Goodall-esque anthropological studies of ladies rooms. I’m not sure if mens rooms see any different behavior. Gentlemen?

2 comments:

Raine said...

The behaviour is exactly the same in the men's room.

I just thought I would clarify/add/clear up some facts made by our blog host.

Many infections involve bacteria moving from the right spot (usually the lower digestive tract... but I'll skip the description), to the wrong spot... usually the mouth or nose. E.Coli, as you know, is spread not through hand contact (unless you managed to dissect a cow, grind its meat by hand, and then rub the bloody remains all over yourself), but rather tainted meat, dairy, or vegitable products (Cook the food well, and avoid cross-contaminating to reduce the risk of this potentially deadly bacteria). Instead, the two main culprits are Salmonella and Streptococcus (Strep Throat). Salmonella is your usual case of the "runs", but Strep is much more insidious. An infection in the throat or eye can leave you under the weather for a week, but if it gets into your skin, it becomes the dreaded Strep E, "Flesh-Eating Disease". This is more it's natural state, as Strep usually exists in everyone's bowels, digesting fiberous plant matter that would otherwise kill us in our sleep.

So, follow the host's advice.
Keep the bugs on a leash, and wash the paws...

Or end up in the porcelain prison, and worse.

Raine said...

The behaviour is exactly the same in the men's room.

I just thought I would clarify/add/clear up some facts made by our blog host.

Many infections involve bacteria moving from the right spot (usually the lower digestive tract... but I'll skip the description), to the wrong spot... usually the mouth or nose. E.Coli, as you know, is spread not through hand contact (unless you managed to dissect a cow, grind its meat by hand, and then rub the bloody remains all over yourself), but rather tainted meat, dairy, or vegitable products (Cook the food well, and avoid cross-contaminating to reduce the risk of this potentially deadly bacteria). Instead, the two main culprits are Salmonella and Streptococcus (Strep Throat). Salmonella is your usual case of the "runs", but Strep is much more insidious. An infection in the throat or eye can leave you under the weather for a week, but if it gets into your skin, it becomes the dreaded Strep E, "Flesh-Eating Disease". This is more it's natural state, as Strep usually exists in everyone's bowels, digesting fiberous plant matter that would otherwise kill us in our sleep.

So, follow the host's advice.
Keep the bugs on a leash, and wash the paws...

Or end up in the porcelain prison, and worse.