Sept. 15, 2003 (Chicago) -- Thousands of people from around the world travel in and out of airport bathrooms in the U.S., still, many don't wash their hands after using the restroom -- a practice experts say could be responsible for spreading potentially-deadly germs.
In fact, the new data show that Toronto is the only city where travelers are good about washing their hands and that is mostly because they are terrified of SARS, said experts speaking here at the 43rd annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Chicago.
From New York to Miami ... Not So Good
More than 30% of people using restrooms in New York airports, 19% of those in Miami's airport and 27% in Chicago are not bothering to wash their hands, according to researchers who observed the hand washing habits of 7,500 people as they passed through airports in six cities.
But 95% of men and 97% of women travelers passing through the Toronto International Airport washed their hands.
Overall, 78% of travelers washed their hands in airport bathrooms, according to the survey, which was conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide.
Hand Washing Packs Powerful Punch
"Although hand washing seems like such a little thing, it could really have a powerful impact on the way we manage the spread of infectious diseases and newer public health threats like SARS and the Norwalk virus responsible for cruise ship illness," says Judy Daly, PhD, director of the microbiology laboratories at the Primary Children's Medical Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"The same people that fail to wash their hands after using restrooms go on to pick up children, handle food, greet family, and use other public facilities," says Daly, also the undersecretary for the American Society of Microbiology, who sponsors the conference.
Hand washing can also prevent flu and colds, she says.
Overall, women are better about hand washing then men, especially in Dallas where 92% of female travelers washed their hands compared to just 69% of men, the survey showed
"It's such a shame that this study wasn't done in Toronto a couple of years ago because my take on it is when you have your [top health official] telling you to wash your hands and full page ads in the newspapers, people are more likely to wash their hands," says Donald Low, MD, chief of the department of microbiology at the University of Toronto and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Low says that he believes people were so scared of Toronto and SARS that they came through the airport and instinctively washed their hands.
"It's nice to think that we are more squeaky clean, but I think it's more fear," Low says.
A corresponding telephone survey, also by Wirthlin Worldwide, found that 95% of people polled said that they wash their hands in public restrooms, however just 78% do so, according to the observational study.
Similar studies conducted in 1996 and 2000 that showed up to 68% of people washed up in public restrooms.
So we know how effective it is at preventing diseases, so why don't more of us lather up? "Busy lives and it's just not something they are thinking about," Low says.
Hand washing 101
All you need is plain soap and water.
"Just plain soap as it's the mechanical action that's important with hand washing," Low says.
"Regular old soap is the way to go," Daly agrees.
Rub your hands together for at least 10-15 seconds, making sure to scrub wrists, palms, back of hands and fingers, and under fingernails.
Wash hands before you:
- Prepare or eat food
- Treat a wound
- Care for someone who is ill
- Insert or remove contact lenses
And after you:
- Go to the bathroom
- Handle raw foods
- Blow your nose, cough, or sneeze
- Play with or touch a pet
- Handle garbage
- Touch money
The new survey finds that 80% of Americans are likely to wash their hands before handling food or eating, and 75% will do so after changing a diaper, but many don't wash after petting a dog or cat, sneezing, or coughing.
"Make hand washing part of your mindset," Low says.