you know where your hands have been lately?
That’s right, the two amazingly flexible sets of fingers and
their supporting palms with which you’re probably holding
this paper right now and turning through its pages. Can you
think of even half of the places and spaces you have touched
It’s hard to keep track of our hands and all the surfaces
they have touched. While we are extremely visually oriented
animals, we still put a lot of trust in our hands to tell
us about the environment in which we live. We are constantly
touching the world around us. Each time we touch something
an exchange occurs.
The surface of our hands is a good place to pick up a fine
menagerie of microorganisms, some of which may not be particularly
palatable to our body’s biochemistry. We pick up all kinds
of viruses and bacteria on them. While these germs are on
our hands they may be relatively tame, our skin forming an
effective boundary that keeps them at bay. However, once brought
into our bodies through such seemingly benign actions as wiping
an eye, touching the mouth or sticking a finger up one’s nose,
these microscopic life forms may multiply rapidly, taking
on a less-than-welcome demeanor.
Some of the more familiar illnesses we can bring into our
body via our hands are colds and gastrointestinal illnesses.
Other more serious diseases like SARS, hepatitis A, meningitis,
infectious diarrhea and drug-resistant staph infections can
also result from poor hand hygiene. It has been reported that
strains of E. coli and salmonella have survived on surfaces
like doorknobs for up to two hours.
Our hands pose a larger potential threat to our health than
anything that has kicked up the Homeland Security color-coded
While George W. spends billions of dollars to prevent terrorists
from infecting us with biological agents, relatively little
attention has been focused on the far greater threat posed
by our own hands. Maybe this is because the solution to this
problem is too simple: soap and water!
While washing our hands has been shown to be an effective
means to reduce illness and the transmission of germs, research
on hand-washing behavior would indicate that a lot of people
are ignoring the obvious. This appears to be particularly
true in public spaces that often function as transfer stations
for the spread of infections.
A study of hand washing conducted for the American Society
of Microbiology back in 2003 produced some rather striking
findings: While telephone interviews found that 95 percent
of those surveyed claimed to wash their hands when they used
public restrooms, an examination of actual hand washing in
airport restrooms found somewhat different results. Over 30
percent of the people who used public bathrooms in New York
City airports did not wash their hands before leaving. Similar
observations in Chicago found 27 percent left without hitting
the soap and water, while in Miami the figure was down to
19 percent. Regardless of the statistics for individual cities,
there appears to be a substantial difference between what
people say they do and what they actually do as far as handwashing
The telephone survey also found that only 58 percent said
they washed after sneezing or coughing into their hands and
only 77 percent said they washed after changing a diaper.
If the restroom behavior is an indicator, it is safe to figure
that a good number of the people who claimed to wash their
hands in these circumstances actually don’t. So where does
that leave you? Probably exposed to more germs than you’d
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
handwashing is one of the most effective means to prevent
the spread of infectious diseases. The CDC suggests that most
of us need to apply soap and water more than we do. The transmission
of disease can be reduced if we are a little more diligent
about washing our hands—before, after and during food preparation;
before eating; after using the bathroom; after handling animals
and their waste; when they’re dirty and when someone is home
Through a moderate increase in handwashing you may be able
to decrease the number of colds, gastrointestinal ailments
and other infectious disease encounters you experience. Along
with this low-cost infection control comes modest healthcare
savings. The costs of doctor visits and medications these
days can make a few dollars invested in soap mighty cost effective.
So, what are the recommended actions for good handwashing?
First, it seems that liquid soap is the way to go to reduce
soap contamination and keep it clean. Wet your hands with
warm water, add soap and then rub them vigorously together,
getting the solution into all the various nooks and crannies.
Most of the handwashing instructions I reviewed indicated
you should keep this action up for 10-20 seconds or the equivalent
of a couple of rounds of a short song like “Happy Birthday.”
Then rise them well and dry them with a paper towel. In the
kitchen, cleaning up with paper towels can reduce the likelihood
of reinfecting your hands from cloth towels that can be notorious
breeding grounds for bad-news microorganisms. I compost most
of my used paper towels.
While George W. wants to impress us with how much he is doing
to prevent terrorists from spreading germs in our environment,
remember that some of the most threatening sources of disease
are those not monitored by Homeland Security. If everyone
spent a little more time with soap on their hands, we’d probably
all be a little healthier. It’s ultimately in our hands.