Handwashing could pretty much save the world, but people don’t do it, so we’re all doomed

Thirty per cent of people don’t wash their hands after using the washroom. And of the 70% that do, only 50% are washing their hands properly. If only they would, we could slow the mass spread of disease, like the coronavirus. 

In other words, everything you touch when you’re out in public is gross and we’re all doomed.

Washing hands could save the world

A new study looked at the rate of handwashing and the researchers estimate that improving this rate in travellers passing through just 10 of the world’s leading airports could significantly reduce the spread of many infectious diseases worldwide.

The findings deal with infectious diseases in general, including the flu, and were published in late December in the Journal Risk Analysis. This is before the current Coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, but obviously the results are applicable to that too.

Anyone who has ever used a public restroom knows what the researchers point out: that “people can be surprisingly casual about washing their hands, even in crowded locations like airports where people from many different locations are touching surfaces such as chair armrests, check-in kiosks, security checkpoint trays, and restroom doorknobs and faucets.”

Only about 20% of people have clean hands

Drawing from previous studies from groups, including the American Society for Microbiology, the team estimates that on average, only about 20% of people in airports have clean hands.

“Clean hands” means they washed with soap and water, for at least 15 seconds, within the last 60 minutes or so. Just rinsing briefly in water doesn’t do the trick. “The other 80% are potentially contaminating everything they touch with whatever germs they may be carrying,” according to lead study author, Christos Nicolaides PhD ’14 of the University of Cyprus, and a fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“Seventy per cent of the people who go to the toilet wash their hands afterwards,” Nicolaides sais in a research brief. “The other 30% don’t. And of those that do, only 50% do it right.”

Nicolaides combined his figures with “estimates of exposure to the many potentially contaminated surfaces that people come into contact with in an airport,” to come up with the team’s estimate that only about 20% of travelers in an airport have clean hands.

Improving handwashing at all of the world’s airports to triple that rate to 60% “would have the greatest impact, potentially slowing global disease spread by almost 70%, the researchers found.”

The brief states that reaching that goal may be “impractical,” (sigh) but suggests we could still achieve a significant reduction in the spread of disease by just picking the 10 most significant airports based on the initial location of a viral outbreak and placing focused handwashing messaging in those airports.

Nicolaides also suggested that having handwashing sinks available at many more locations, especially outside of the restrooms where surfaces tend to be highly contaminated, would go a long way towards improving hand hygiene in airports. As would more frequent cleaning of surfaces that are touched by a lot of people.

What is the moral of the story?


This isn’t entirely new news. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have stated that hand hygiene is the most efficient and cost-effective way to control disease propagation. And yet, people still don’t do it. Clearly someone is not getting the message out.

Bonus information: the grossest surfaces on an airplane

Also, a study by CBC Marketplace a couple of years ago found the dirtiest surfaces on an airplane. They are, in order of dirtiness, as follows:

Seat pocket
Washroom handle
Tray table
Seat belt

Check out this handy infographic for more on the yucky germs lurking on these almost entirely unavoidable surfaces. Happy traveling.

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