Don’t eat poop (like those kids at Georgetown); proper handwashing and proper tools

I used to steal toilet paper.

As an undergraduate 25 years ago, and once my girlfriend showed me how to get at the theft-proof rolls in the university centre, the supplies of toilet paper in our household became one less student expense.

My hockey bag is still filled with those little soaps and shampoos from hotel rooms around the globe.

I was the kind of student — and apparently I’m not alone — University of Guelph administrators in Canada were worried about when they said that residence students should provide their own handwashing soap.

In 2005, the university switched to sanitizers instead of soap and paper towels in the residence washrooms because soap dispensers, paper towels and garbage cans went missing.

That was before a 2006 norovirus outbreak sickened over 150 students, primarily in one university residence.

The university subsequently returned soap and paper towels to all residences to help control the outbreak.

Students at Georgetown University are now being implored to wash their hands after a norovoirus outbreak linked to the school’s dining hall caused 175 students to vomit their way to the hospital. Said one university official, “Handwashing is going to be our mantra for a very long time around here.”

That’s great. A little late, but better than before. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 25 per cent of the 76 million annual cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. could be eliminated with proper handwashing.

That’s a lot fewer sick people.

But, as Jon Stewart quipped in 2002, “If you think the 10 commandments being posted in a school is going to change behavior of children, then you think ‘Employees Must Wash Hands’ is keeping the piss out of your happy meals. It’s not.”

So why don’t more people wash their hands?

While some practice a Howard Hughes-like paranoia, study after study shows that many are lazy when it comes to handwashing. The proclamations to practice proper handwashing, on restroom posters, in daycare facilities, in media scare stories, will always fail to register with those who are impervious to risk — that bad things happen to someone else, not me.

But as the Guelph example demonstrates, anything that can even slightly encourage proper handwashing and hygiene in general needs to be encouraged — and that means ready availability of soap, water and paper towels.

Once available, the facilities have to actually be used, whether in the workplace, the home, the university residence, or, the farm.

The steps in proper handwashing, as concluded from the preponderance of available evidence, are:

• wet hands with water;
• use enough soap to build a good lather;
• scrub hands vigorously, creating friction and reaching all areas of the fingers and hands for at least 10 seconds to loosen pathogens on the fingers and hands;
• rinse hands with thorough amounts of water while continuing to rub hands; and,
• dry hands with paper towel.

Water temperature is not a critical factor — water hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria and viruses would scald hands — so use whatever is comfortable.

The friction from rubbing hands with paper towels helps remove additional bacteria and viruses.
The next time you visit a bathroom that is missing soap, water or paper towels, let someone in charge know. And next time you see someone skip out on the suds in the bathroom, look at them and say, “Dude, wash your hands!”

Don’t eat poop.