Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Make it a clean sweep for a clean start

And start simply — with your hands

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It's a suitably posh women's washroom attached to a posh restaurant. Nice marble floor, elegant fixtures, Kohler sinks. A woman approaches the sink next to me. The no-touch faucet turns on automatically and delivers an ecologically correct stream of water. She dabbles her fingertips in the stream like it's a fingerbowl, then flicks the water off her fingertips and click-clacks out on her Kate Spades.

No way! No soap, no towels — so, no, Madame, you did not wash your hands after using a public toilet and re-entering that nice restaurant.

Yes, folks, we're still early in the New Year when we like to make a clean sweep, and what better way than making sure you bother to clean your hands properly, especially now — peak season for influenza-like illnesses, which transmit very easily on hands and surfaces.

I'm not the only one who's noticed the distinct lack of hand-washing in public washrooms. I've marvelled at the popularity of the fingerbowl technique (above) and, worse, those who open and close the toilet stall door, latch the latch, touch the toilet handle and toilet paper, and then scurry out, grabbing the door handle everyone uses to exit, without even a drop of water. Do these people ever wash their hands?!

Now I've been vindicated! Keith Redway, a leading microbiologist at the University of Westminster in London, has been studying hand hygiene for some 20 years. He reports that a study revealed that two-thirds of people don't use soap when they wash their hands! Apparently, we realize hygiene is important and we know we should use soap, but don't.

If you don't think clean hands or soap are important, you might want to consider what Kelsi Rivers has to say. She's an infection control practitioner for Vancouver Coastal Health for Sea to Sky region.

"It is really important to wash your hands," she says. "Germs can live on the surfaces around us for sometimes hours to days and in some cases, actually, days to weeks, so picking germs up from surfaces on our hands and bringing them to our eyes, nose and mouth is one of the No.1 ways that infections transmit from person to person."

Clean hands are really important for everyone, all the time, not just this time of year. If you research the contamination of what's known as high-touch surfaces — shopping cart handles, bank machines, door handles, keypads on phones and light switches at work or school — you'd be blown away. You might even wash your hands more often.

A study done by a University of Arizona microbiologist showed that 70 to 80 per cent of grocery carts tested were contaminated with E. coli. Then there're gas pump handles, mailbox handles, escalator railings, and ATM machines (the latter were shown to be contaminated with bacteria at the same level as public toilets).

"What's tricky, I think, for folks is you can't go around and sanitize your environment, nor is it healthy to do so," says Kelsi. "So it's important to know that we get germs on our hands throughout the day and as long as we're cleaning our hands before bringing them to our eyes, nose or mouth, they're not harmful. But rather than walking around with sanitizing wipes in your pocket, it's really much more effective to clean your hands before eating or touching your face.

"We live in a microbial world — we're going to come into contact with these organisms throughout the day and that's quite normal as long as we're doing our best to prevent them from coming into our bodies.... Then we're protecting ourselves from illness."

Fear not — we have two great protective tools at our service: hand sanitizers and hand-washing with soap and water.

Kelsi says that hand sanitizers, those alcohol-based hand gels, are actually preferred over soap and water, as long as your hands are not visibly soiled. Good effective hand washing still has its place but, overall, hand sanitizers are quicker and more effective, plus they're definitely easier to access in public. Especially use hand sanitizers when you're in places like medical clinics, hospitals and retirement homes, where preventing the spread of infection to vulnerable people is critical.

Hand washing is also a great tool but you must do it right. Key is understanding what's happening, and teaching your kids how to do it right, too.

In a nutshell, the soap sticks to the different organisms and the dirt on your hands and you're using friction to rub all that dirt away. Repeat: soap and friction. So you need to rub all the surfaces with soapy water: Rub your palms together, rub the backs of your hands, in between your fingers, and around your wrist and the bottom of your thumb. I've even seen doctors rub the tips of their fingers on their opposite palm, using it as you would a nail brush.

This takes 20 seconds, certainly less time than it will take you to recover if you get sick. Sing Happy Birthday, twice.

Rinse your hands well and dry them with a paper or textile towel. Yes, paper towels are best: one clean towel per person, plus you can use the towels to turn the (contaminated) water taps and open that (contaminated) washroom door handle.

As for those increasingly ubiquitous jet dryers — well, those are for another time but let's just say the research by Mr. Redway and team showed that they can blow any contaminants as far as three metres away.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who washes her hands with soap, often.

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