The germy truth

Associated Press file photo

Proper hand washing takes at least 20 seconds and should include scrubbing between fingers and under nails. In a recent study, only 5 percent of people washed their hands enough to kill infection, and illness-causing germs after using the bathroom. In 2009, Minneapolis Public Schools installed 3,500 new soap dispensers to encourage hand washing.

By Lindsay Friedman

Hand washing isn’t exactly an arduous chore, especially because it’s done in the name of squashing germs, says Carl Borchgrevink, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hospitality and Business.

Regrettably, it’s a chore that often goes neglected.

According to a study led by Borchgrevink, only 5 percent of people washed their hands enough to kill infection- and illness-causing germs after using the bathroom. To make matters worse, 33 percent of hand washers didn’t use soap, and 10 percent skipped the hygienic step altogether.

“It’s horrifying,” Borchgrevink says. “A majority didn’t even make an effort.”

Borchgrevink, with the help of 12 research assistants, visited a number of restrooms in the college town of East Lansing. Observing the tendencies of more than 3,700 bathroom-goers in a nonintrusive manner, they determined age with an educated guess, labeling subjects as either “college-age” or “noncollege-age.”

Among their observations: Members of older generations washed their hands more often and for longer periods of time compared with youngsters. People were more likely to wash their hands earlier in the day rather than in the late afternoon. Additionally, men were found to be less-spirited hand cleansers and were “particularly worse at washing their hands correctly.”

“Men might just be more stubborn. They don’t like to be told what to do,” Borchgrevink says. “I’ve heard some men say they don’t think they need to wash their hands because they don’t always have to use stalls, which is absolutely wrong.”

According to the CDC, people need to vigorously wash their hands for about 15 to 20 seconds to kill any type of dangerous bacteria. Most people wash their hands for about six seconds. Without executing the correct hand sanitizing techniques, grime, dirt and bacteria that would typically be sent down the drain stays on the hands and increases the host’s likelihood of becoming seriously ill.

“Education is there, but ... it’s easily overlooked,” says Karen Francois, a physician at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell. “We’re more aware of sanitation and hygiene, but people still aren’t doing it. Even though we know it’s the right thing to do, we aren’t doing it consistently.”

Why are people willing to skip such an easy germ-fighting step? Borchgrevink wants to know.

“Being sanitary is really important,” he says. “It’s possible that they may not have paid attention (to the CDC or other hand-washing advocates), thinking it doesn’t apply to them. I don’t think they’re maliciously not washing their hands. I just think they’re just not realizing the impact.”

Borchgrevink says clean facilities and signage maximizes the chances someone would choose to send germy villains down the pipes. The former restaurateur says social pressures should do the trick, too.

“It’s so important to make (hand washing) convenient,” Francois says. “If it’s easy, it would really encourage people to have proper hand hygiene.”

© 2013 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

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