Why Don't People Wash Their Hands?

(QwikCare Urgent Care Tip) Here is something everybody can agree on: America has a hand washing problem. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan found that only about 1 in 20 Americans properly wash their hands. That’s just 5 percent of more than 3,700 people the group observed in public restrooms throughout the duration of the study. The findings were published in the “Journal of Environmental Health,” in April.

“These finding were surprising to us because past research suggested that proper hand washing is occurring at a much higher rate,” says Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor of hospitality business and the study’s lead investigator. “That was horrifying to me.”

A comparable study by Urine Feces Everywhere, a cooperative of researchers, writers and healthcare professionals, reported hand washing rates as high as 97 percent in their study of restroom patrons in several national ballparks. The CDC points to general adherence rates at about 40 percent for healthcare workers — which is still significantly higher than the rates found by the University of Michigan.

Borchgrevink says the wide gap in results comes from the study’s adherence to counting proper hand washing behaviors, rather than anyone who “is over by the sink.”

According to the CDC, it takes about 15 to 20 seconds (or “Happy Birthday” sung twice) of vigorous hand washing to effectively remove bacterial loads from the fingers, palms and dorsum.

In Borchgrevink’s study, even those patrons who did wash their hands didn’t do so for the recommended length of time. The average visitor washed their hands for six seconds, the study says.

“I saw the compliance rates in the other studies, and I was a little skeptical,” he says. “Their rates didn’t match my own experience when I use restrooms. I think people are just not aware of the official recommendations. Spending 15 seconds may save you a few days,” of being sick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the Findings:

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

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

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

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

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

Responses to Others Not Washing

  • Avoid contact with anything the non-washer touched
  • Wash their own hands more thoroughly
  • In general, avoid the person

Wash Up to Stop the Spread of Colds!

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