How hand washing became habit

Column by Jill Kindy. E-mail opinions@kykernel.com.

“Employees are required to wash hands before returning to work.”

“Did you wash ‘em?”

Really? Is this necessary? Does our culture really need reminders to wash our hands? Apparently, the answer is, “Yes.”

An August 2010 study conducted by the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute showed that hand washing rates are up to 85 percent.

However, rates depended on the site where folks were observed.

For example, a low of 35 percent was seen for males in public restrooms at Turner Field in Atlanta, compared to 98 percent of the females at the same venue. For all venues that were observed, the ladies cleaned up better at 93 percent, versus the guys at 77 percent.

In the 1840s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis advocated for hand washing to help prevent transmitting illness to pregnant women during childbirth. He and other clinicians and researchers were met with disdain and hostility when they advocated for hand washing.

Perhaps hand washing seemed odd at the time. The lack of indoor plumbing made it difficult to get water. To make the water comfortably warm, it would have to be heated over a fire. You’d think that after 150 years and the availability of warm, running water, hand washing would have caught on more.

We have come a long way since the 1800s, and hand washing is still the single most important means of preventing the spread of illness, but we still have a ways to go.

When available, wash your hands with soap and warm water. Rub your hands vigorously together, while singing “Happy Birthday” to yourself, for about 15 to 20 seconds. Be sure to scrub all surfaces of your hands; soap combined with scrubbing action helps dislodge and remove germs.

When soap and water are not available, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers.

Jill Kindy is a health education coordinator for University Health Services. E-mail opinions@kykernel.com.