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.

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