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Manual Laver

Do 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 today?

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 warning system.

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 goes.

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 like.

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 ill.

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.

—Tom Nattell 

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