Hand-washing claims go down the drain

September 30, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Most people say they wash their hands after using the bathroom. But a new study suggests that many of them are not telling the truth.

The researchers demonstrated that people were not as conscientious as they say they were by comparing answers given in a telephone poll with observed behavior.

In the nationwide poll, conducted Aug. 19-22 by Harris Interactive, 1,013 adults were interviewed about their hand-washing habits. Then the researchers sent observers into public restrooms to see what actually happened.

Ninety-one percent of adults claimed in the poll that they washed their hands after using a public restroom. But the observers found that only 82 percent actually did so.

Women, the study found, were more diligent than men: 90 percent washed their hands, compared with only 75 percent of the men.

Michael T. Osterholm, chairman of the public health committee of the American Society of Microbiologists, which commissioned the survey, said he could not explain the difference.

"I don't think anyone knows why men are so much less likely to wash than women," he said. "People who use urinals probably think they don't need to wash their hands. But the overall message is that most Americans do wash their hands after using the bathroom, even though we have a long way to go."

Osterholm is also a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.

The observations for the study were made at restrooms in six locations: 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 Farmers Market in San Francisco.

At Turner Field in Atlanta, home of the Atlanta Braves, people were less likely to wash when they left a public bathroom than at any other location. Only 74 percent of baseball fans washed up, an even lower percentage than among commuters at Penn Station, where 79 percent washed their hands.

San Franciscans are apparently very hygienic: 88 percent of people using public bathrooms at the Farmers Market stopped to wash before leaving. The only people more sanitary were those at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago: 89 percent washed their hands before leaving the restroom.

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