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Hand Washing Catching On in U.S.

In Major Cities, 85% of Adults Are Washing Their Hands After Using Public Facilities, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 14, 2010 -- Researchers who observed hand washing in restrooms in major cities say 85% of adults are washing their hands after using public facilities, a new observational study shows.

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the American Cleaning Institute (ACI) sent observers into restrooms in six locations in four major cities in 2010 to monitor hand-washing trends after use of facilities.

The observers, who took steps to disguise their jobs, say they saw 85% of restroom users wash their hands, compared to 77% in 2007. It was the highest rate since such studies began in 1996. No such studies were done in 2008 or 2009.

Results of Hand-Washing Study

The results were announced in Boston at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, a meeting sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology. The American Cleaning Institute was formerly known as the Soap and Detergent Association.

The groups’ findings were at odds with a separate telephone survey that found that 96% of adults claimed to have washed their hands after using public restrooms.

Harris Interactive, on behalf of the ASM and the ACI, “discreetly” observed 6,028 adults in public restrooms at Turner Field in Atlanta, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Grand Central Station and Penn Station in New York, and the Ferry Terminal Farmers Market in San Francisco.

Among the findings:

  • 77% of men washed their hands after public restroom use, compared to 66% in 2007.
  • 93% of women were observed washing their hands in the same locations in 2010, up from 88% in 2007.
  • Only 65% of men observed at Turner Field washed their hands, up from a mere 57% in 2007. But 98% of women at that Atlanta sports venue were observed washing their hands.
  • The highest percentages for hand washing were seen in Chicago and San Francisco, with 89% of adults soaping up. Atlanta came in next at 82%, followed by 79% in New York.


Phone Survey About Hand Washing

A 2010 Harris Interactive phone survey of 1,006 people found that most people, 89%, claim they always wash their hands after using the restroom at home. That survey also found that:

  • 82% of people say they always wash their hands after changing a diaper, up from 73% in 2007. And women seem more concerned about this activity than men, the survey says, with 88% of women and only 76% of men claiming to soap up after changing diapers.
  • 77% of Americans told surveyors they always wash their hands before handling or eating food, about the same as 78% in 2007. Women also get the cleanliness nod here, with 83% saying they wash up before touching their food, compared to 71% of men who gave the same answer.
  • 39% of people polled said they always wash their hands after sneezing or coughing.

“We are really pleased to see these results, which suggest that our campaign is being effective,” says Judy Daly, PhD, a spokeswoman for the ASM and professor of pathology at the University of Utah, in a news release. “Although the venues were different, our first observational study in 1996 found only 68% overall washing up in public restrooms, and that declined to an all-time low of 67% when we repeated the study in 2000.”

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