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People's hand-washing tales a whitewash, study says


(CNN) -- When it comes to hand-washing in the United States, it's do as I say, not as I do, researchers found.

The American Society for Microbiology wanted to know how many people told the truth about their hand-washing habits. So volunteers called more than 1,000 people across the country and asked. Of those surveyed, 95 percent said they always washed after using a public restroom.

But then, sneaky microbiology society observers watched people in public restrooms in New York, Chicago, Illinois; New Orleans, Louisiana; San Francisco, California; and Atlanta, Georgia, to see whether they actually did wash their hands. It turns out that about one third of people weren't exactly on the up and up.

 The Dirty Truth:

Percentage of people who said they wash their hands after using a public restroom vs. percentage who actually did

Men: 92% vs. 58%
Women: 97% vs. 75%

Percentage of people surveyed who said they washed their hands after
  • Using a public restroom: 95%
  • Using bathroom at home: 86%
  • Changing a diaper: 78%
  • Before handling or eating food: 77%
  • Petting a dog or cat: 45%
  • Coughing or sneezing: 31%
  • Handling money: 20%

"Your hands are the most important means from which germs travel from one person to another," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of hospital infectious programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "So it would make sense that washing your hands would be an effective strategy for protecting yourself."

Dr. William Jarvis, chief of the CDC hospital infection's program's investigation and prevention unit, said even health care professionals fall down on the job.

"Physicians, nurses ... have been documented repeatedly to not wash their hands properly," Jarvis said. "At best, it is 40 percent of the time that we recommend that they should wash their hands (that they really do)."

And all it really takes is about 10 to 15 seconds worth of effort, according to Gerberding. So here's the dirt on the subject:

  • Use water and soap. Water temperature doesn't matter, but the time you take does. Lather and wash for about 15 seconds, making sure to clean nooks and crannies, as well as under the fingernails.
  • Rinse thoroughly under running water.
  • Dry with a clean paper towel or use a hot-air dryer.
  • Dispose of the paper towel.
  • Some authorities also recommend that you use a paper towel to open the door with because door handles harbor germs. Throw the towel away after you leave.

"We really don't have any evidence that antibacterial soaps are any better than plain soap and water," said Gerberding.

By far, the more important thing is to get into the hand-washing habit.

"There are many diseases that are transmitted from person to person through hands," she continued. "Probably the most important one is the common cold virus (but) ... we know there are many other more serious infections that are also transmitted through that route.

Periodic outbreaks of hepatitis A have been attributed to food contamination spread by inadequate hand-washing, and a recent outbreak of shigella at a Colorado elementary school that sickened 45 children -- hospitalizing three -- also was caused by a failure to practice good hygiene.

"We need to create a culture where hand-washing is the thing to do," said Gerberding. "If we can just wash our hands, we will have an impact on some of the most common problems, as well as some of the most serious health problems we face."

CNN Correspondent Holly Firfer contributed to this report.

Potentially fatal germs under fingernails of hospital personnel should be 'eradicated,' study says
September 7, 2000
CDC expands campaign against overuse of antibiotics
June 1, 2000
Women's bathrooms more germ-laden than men's
May 6, 1997

Clean Hands Campaign
American Society for Microbiology
Operation Clean Hands
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Hand Washing

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