Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Keep it clean, eh?

When it comes to basic hygiene, mom may not have known best



I was standing on my tippy-toes in the washroom of one of my favorite restaurants the other day, using my elbow to flip down the paper towel dispenser lever so I wouldn’t have to touch the darned thing, when out of one of the stalls sails a young woman, 20-something, cool dresser, hair tied back in a loose ponytail.

She proceeds to the sink, turns on both taps full force, splashes her fingertips through the gush of water, then flicks her wrists to shake off some water before leaving.

That was it for her personal hygiene routine after using the can – no soap, nothing rinsed but the ends of her fingers. I guess she might have dried them on her pant legs on her way back to the dining area. All I can say is man, I hope she didn’t work there.

So to every person who has ever chided me for "elbowing" my way through public washrooms (or, variously, using the hem of my dress or the bottom of my cardigan or jacket to open doors and push/pull levers, taps and buttons), a big fat nyah. My predilection for touching as little as possible in public washrooms has been more than vindicated by that single scenario.

Even in a post-SARS world, people still don’t seem to take seriously the importance of hand washing to prevent everything from infectious diseases and gastro-intestinal disorders to the common cold. Or at least there’s a huge gap between knowing better and doing it.

The issue is so serious, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) launched a Clean Hands Campaign nearly 10 years ago. But it still hasn’t made much headway.

A recent survey conducted by the ASM – which, until the recent devastation in New Orleans, had scheduled its 45 th annual conference there this fall (they are now assisting with clean-up) – revealed that an average of 25 per cent of people using public washrooms in airports did not wash their hands after answering nature’s call.

In total, about 7,500 people were observed in six North American airports, including Toronto’s. Men were significantly more negligent in the hand washing department than women. Overall, not a great showing, and just slightly better than a previous study’s results, which indicated that 33 per cent of people did not wash their hands.

But here’s the stickler: 95 per cent of people surveyed in the same study by phone said they always washed their hands after using public washrooms. That’s a big gap between thinking about doing the right thing and doing it. But what else could they say – unless they were caught red-handed.

The same ASM phone survey also revealed that only 58 per cent of people said they wash their hands after sneezing or coughing; only 77 per cent said they wash their hands after changing a diaper. Yuk. Remember that next time you pick up your kids from daycare. And if you factor in the discrepancy ratio, the reality is likely far worse.

Then there’s the issue of technique. I’m sure if you asked that young woman I shared a washroom with, she’d insist that she had washed her hands, even though she hadn’t even come close. And she’s not the only one whose approach falls short. One survey conducted after people washed their hands in public washrooms using a special soap sensitive to black light showed in full UV reality that people hadn’t washed large areas of their hands, especially the backs.

It’s kind of weird, but as commonsensical as hand washing is, or should be, a lot of people don’t have a clue. And don’t necessarily fall back on what your mom taught you. Her techniques may not be the greatest, unless she was a member of the ASM. Here’s what they advise.

Wash your hands before you:

• Prepare or eat food

• Treat a cut or wound

• Tend to someone who's sick

• Put in or take out contact lenses

• Do any kind of activity that involves putting your fingers in or near your eyes, nose or mouth.

And wash after you:

• Go to the bathroom

• Handle uncooked foods, especially raw meat

• Eat

• Blow your nose, cough or sneeze

• Handle garbage

• Tend to someone who's sick

• Change a diaper

• Play with or touch a pet, especially reptiles and exotic animals

So how do you do it? Now listen up, girl-in-the-washroom: first of all use soap – a good slather of it. It suspends microbes and surface dirt and oils, so they can be rinsed away. And use warm water – if it’s too hot you won’t keep your hands in it long enough to do a good job of washing and rinsing.

Wash your hands for at least 15-20 seconds, and make sure you rinse them well – that sloughs off all the bad stuff the soap suspends. Time yourself by singing "Happy Birthday" through twice. Do it out loud and you’ll really have fun if you’re in a public venue.

Wash the backs of your hands, and your wrists, and under your fingernails. And dry them properly using clean, disposable towels, not your pant legs, girl, which are likely dirty.

As for antibacterial soap, forget it. Studies show that antibacterials aren’t significantly more effective at combating germs than regular soaps. In fact, some tests show that people using them are lulled into a false sense of security – they don’t spend as long washing and rinsing their hands. Even worse, the multi-billion-dollar antibacterial soap industry is contributing to the growing problem of drug-resistance and deadly super-bugs.

At the very least, antibacterial soaps don’t produce "cleaner" or healthier households. According to one study recorded at the National Library of Medicine in the U.S., a double-blind test of almost 1,200 people indicated that there were no fewer cases of cough, runny nose, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea or other symptoms in households using antibacterial soaps than in those that didn’t use them.

Furthermore, most common ailments are caused by viruses, which are beyond the scope of antibacterials. And since children need to be exposed to some bacteria in early childhood in order to strengthen their immune systems those who aren’t exposed to common bacteria, which are wiped out by antibacterial soap, may be more prone to allergies and asthma . Ergo the American Medical Association’s refusal to endorse antibacterial soaps.

Worse, anti-bacterial agents are turning up in the environment. In one study alone, 58 per cent of streams tested contained antibacterials.

So keep it simple. Use some soap. Wash and rinse properly. And don’t forget to sing "Happy Birthday" to yourself – twice. Because you will be a lot happier if you stay healthy.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who hates dirty-handed dealings.