Dirty Little Secrets
About Hand Washing

For at least a century now, it’s common knowledge that one of the essential conditions for good health is to wash your hands often. That’s still true in the age of sanitizers and nothing like the virus du jour to highlight that. It’s also when most people realize that six seconds under running water doesn’t clean anything.
The personal care industry makes billions every year but we still prioritize appearance, voice tone, timing, and a series of other silly parameters to gauge whether the person in front of us is friend or foe. And yet they could kill us with a handshake. No wonder the doctor who became obsessed with cleanliness lost his mind.
What’s curious is that a dweller of any modern metropolis does value showering daily or almost, and depending on education, brushing their teeth a least twice a day. Somehow the initial step, though, and despite the usual comforts of contemporary life, like indoor plumbing, taking the time to wash up is treated as a formality.

It’s hard to understand how come such a crucial habit fell through the cracks of culture. Or that we even survived to this age. The evidence clean hands do save lives is around for so long, just like soap, and in the big scheme of things, time spent washing up is negligible compared to other human activities.
And yet, here we are, with the coronavirus wreaking havoc those very activities on a global scale. The benefits of this simple habit to improve global health cannot be overestimated and neither can the growth of the soap and cosmetics industry during the same period. Human awareness though went the other way.
Hand sanitizers are an ultra-modern invention likely devised to quell germophobic anxieties and up to a few months ago, could be found at every counter of every food and retail places in America. It’s not so available anymore and for a while hoarders and mad-greedy merchants thought their price should be many times higher.
Amazon and other delivery companies – which by the way are making a killing – have stepped in to curb price gouging, but the initial widespread adoption of antibacterial soaps prompted a number of alarming studies about their long-term effects. That’s why the FDA banned Triclosan, despite industry efforts against it.
The current virus outbreak may potentially produce yet another unforeseen economic impact: to boost the moribund corn industry. A perennial recipient of government aid, corn depends on two factors for its commercial viability, subsidies and the fact corn syrup is now added to arguably 90% of American food. Thus the demand for corn-made alcohol is expected to spike.
But dirty habits die hard. Consider the study by late 2003 Ig Nobel Prize in Literature John Trinkaus of CUNY, published at the Annals of Improbable Research. It recorded public use of a hand-sanitizing station in the lobby of a teaching hospital, with heavy traffic of medical professionals, patients, and their relatives.
Of a total of 500 observations made, only three out of 108 healthcare practitioners stopped and used the station, which runs (more)
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counter to the mostly positive public image of doctors and health workers, essential to building patient trust. Among non-practitioners, 23 or six percent of the 392 did sanitize their hands.
Attenuating factors, such as the possibility any of the observed could have washed up prior to arriving or was about to do so were dutifully taken into account. But what hope is left if those in charge of keeping us healthy won’t care to abide by the same principles?
Everyone should wash their hands with a chlorinated lime solution before taking care of patients, thought Ignaz Semmelweis sometime in 1847. He published a book on the subject and spent the next 18 years of his life fighting the medical establishment. Or something like that; we’re editorializing it a bit to entice you.
Then he had what was then known as ‘a nervous breakdown.’ In quick succession, he was ‘treacherously’ committed to an asylum by colleagues, – as indicated by our extensive research on his Wikipedia page – and was apparently beaten to death by guards, not before suffering from fatal gangrene. Certainly an unsung hero.
It’s not hard to imagine what Herr Doktor had to face in his time to convince, sadly unsuccessfully, well-educated ignoramuses. That kind of wasted energy, or as former Democratic Rep. Barney Frank put it, the equivalent of trying to argue with the dining room table, can’t be consuming. It ignited one too many Ignaz out of Semmelweis.

The good doctor had his reasons but it’s redundant to ask for yours. Living under siege is a step up from lying under stars. So you thought that we were cleaner than our ancestors, but the evidence points to the contrary. With the added bad taste that the increase in choices did not necessarily translate into better judgment.
Whether we’ll pull through it is not up to the soap to decide. We’re open carriers and to cover your mouth is to save you from killing others. Because let’s face it, that’s what the virus makes us do. I mean, we do it all the time but can’t handle if someone else, say an undead virus, do it to us. Outrage irrupts.
The concern is when the virus-killing agent goes rogue and pays us a visit. Sanitizers kill ‘good’ germs too, some of the trillion bacteria we move about with. And continue to kill. Not like a fertilizer-induced green explosion, algae suffocating entire river systems. But by squeezing all the air and life out of us.
So much money invested in cosmetics defenses when strengthening our immune system with healthy food would give us a better horse in this race, that many forget to wash up altogether. By the way, Professor Trinkaus was awarded the Ig Prize for ‘meticulously collecting data and publishing 80 reports about things that annoyed him.’

(*) Originally published on Aug. 15, 2011.

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