All Together Now: Eeeeuuuww!

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Hand Under Running Faucet

Here’s a tip: If you ever use a public restroom at New York’s Penn Station, consider buying a hazmat suit first and decontaminating before you rejoin the world. Many commuters passing through the station — and the bathroom — don’t wash their hands when they’re done. That kind of thing can cause trouble.In the category of Hey, Somebody’s Got To Do the Research, investigators from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) recently stationed themselves in the restrooms of six very public places: Turner Field in Atlanta; the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station in New York; and the Ferry Terminal  Farmer’s Market in San Francisco. While standing by the sinks pretending to  apply makeup or fix their hair, they were actually surreptitiously watching to see how many people took mom’s advice and washed their hands after the business part of their visit to the bathroom — and how many just ankled on out.

The cleanest towns turned out to be Chicago and San Francisco, with an 89% hand-washing rate. (The tidiest place of all was the Museum of Science and Industry at 93%; must be something about the brainy environment.) Atlanta’s Turner Field came in second at 82%; last was New York at 79% — but, hey, this is the city where office workers grab lunch from hot dog, hoagie and falafel carts. When you eat street meat, apparently nothing scares you.

Just as you’d expect, women did better than men, with a 93% to 77% edge. Just as you’d expect as well, in a separate telephone poll the ASM conducted, lots of people lied: 96% claimed they always washed their hands in public restrooms. And something you wouldn’t expect: just 88% of women and 80% of men said they always wash their hands after changing a diaper. The stats weren’t broken down by just what the diaper contained, but here’s betting that when it came to hand-washing, number two finished number one.

The study is important for more than the snicker factor. The ASM conducts a similar survey every few years, and nationwide, hand-washing rates have improved since 2007, rising from 77% to 85% for all people observed or questioned. That’s likely a result of last year’s H1N1 pandemic, during which people learned — re-learned, actually — how important regular hand-washing is during flu season. With warm weather rapidly giving way to cool, and who-knows-what flu viruses brewing for the winter to come, it’s a good lesson to keep in mind again.