One morning last month I was on my way to my job in Lisle when I stopped in a Union Station bathroom to put on my tie. While doing so, I was astounded. Only two of the six men I saw entering and exiting the bathroom washed their hands.
After the first “gentleman” passed all the sinks and exited, I thought, “nasty guy.” Not 10 seconds later another walked straight out. I was like, “really?” When a third did the same thing, I was like, “Wow! This is standard procedure?”
To observe further, I pretended to adjust my tie to see if anyone would wash. A few moments later a guy finally came to a sink, but his washing was more a token sprinkling of water. This was shortly followed by a second guy who came to the sink after using the bathroom. Again, a gentle rinse–no soap. Guess this is better than nothing. Then yet another guy came and left without washing his hands after taking care of business.
To male Chicagoans’ credit, one guy did enter the bathroom and wash his hands with soap and water, but he had come to do just that without using the toilet.
After two minutes, I couldn't take any more. I finished my tie straightening and felt a Hulk-like transformation from borderline germaphobe—a double latherer, in fact—to someone with the obsessive compulsions of Adrian Monk.
These are unscientific observations, but if this pattern held, that’s 120 sets of nasty hands an hour going off into the world to shake, turn doorknobs, and touch all manner of things—and share their germs. (Note that half the scofflaws I saw appeared to have been there for No. 2.)
These habits present serious public health risks. According to studies cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not washing hands with soap and water can lead to the transmission of adenoviruses, which are the cause of many illnesses, including colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, diarrhea, and cystitis. In fact, a million worldwide deaths a year linked to diarrheal diseases could be prevented by proper hand washing.
And my own observations are backed up by studies. According to a study by the Bradley Corporation, only 60 percent of men say they always wash their hands after using the bathroom. (Even scarier: 95 percent of people who do wash their hands are doing so improperly, according to a study at Michigan State University.)
What we need is a community-wide intervention. I’m calling on Chicago leaders to make hand washing a new community priority. But until that happens, maybe we should just stop shaking hands. Just as children are taught to sneeze into their elbows to avoid contaminating their hands and others with germs, adults should be given the option of extending an elbow instead of a hand to shake. Or perhaps we adopt the bow of some cultures. Then there will be no need to wonder if that friendly guy at the office who is always extending his hand—and double-clasping yours—is one of these no-washers.
Since we cannot force adults to wash their hands after using the bathroom, I suggest we invoke the salute of Mr. Spock and the Vulcans, who had the right idea when greeting folks whose habits we know little about. To truly live long and prosper, embrace the touchless hello—or have a wipe handy.