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Germs "Spread" Into School Curriculum: Handwashing Saves the Day!

People---kids and adults!---do not wash their hands as often or as well as they think they do, risking poor health and the spread of infection. That was the finding of a 1998 survey of people's handwashing habits conducted in public restrooms across the United States by the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) and Bayer Corporation's Pharmaceutical Division.

In response to a survey that found that almost one third of people do not wash their hands after using the bathroom, Bayer and the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) launched Operation Clean Hands, a campaign to educate Americans about health risks associated with poor handwashing habits.

In Baltimore, Maryland, Jacquetta Conwell, a concerned working mother, spearheaded an effort to include handwashing education in Baltimore's schools. In some Baltimore schools, soap and paper towels had been in scarce supply before Conwell came along!

In Lubbock, Texas, Annette Moore, a registered nurse at Methodist Hospital, coordinated Operation Clean Hands Day. Handwashing education took place throughout the community---from nursery schools to the university! Thanks to Moore's efforts, handwashing education also found its way onto billboards and radio and cable TV programs in Lubbock.

"Handwashing is the single most important thing people can do to prevent the spread of germs," Moore says.


One of Moore's favorite activities is one she's done with children in Lubbock's schools and at community health fairs and workshops. "I take a product called Glo-Germ and apply a bit to the children's hands. The kids rub the Glo-Germ into their hands as they would a lotion, rubbing it into their knuckles and fingernails and all the little nooks and crannies."

Then Moore sends the kids off to the bathroom to wash their hands. "Do a good job," she says.

When the kids return from their handwashing adventure, Moore asks them to stick their hands under the light of an ultraviolet lamp.

"Under the light, the kids are amazed to still see signs of Glo-Germ's simulated germs," says Moore. "And they thought they'd done such a great job of handwashing!"

Moore has used Glo-Germ in other ways too. She sprays some on pencils or doorknobs and lets kids see how easy germs left behind on those surfaces can be spread to hands that come in contact with them!

Young students who take part in Moore's clean hands lessons get coloring pages in return, and a certificate.

Moore shared the results of another interesting handwashing study, not the one done by Bayer and the AMS. In this school-based study, she recalls, students were required in school to wash their hands thoroughly four times each day. They washed their hands upon arrival at school; before lunch; after using the restroom; and before leaving school for home. The result was predictable: Absenteeism in the school decreased sharply during the study period.

"Microorganisms are changing and becoming resistant to antibiotics," Moore says. "And handwashing is the first frontier in protecting against those germs."


Moore gets on her "soapbox" once more when the conversation turns to talk of handwashing tips: "Please, please, please, don't assume that kids know how to wash their hands," she implores. "You'd never assume they know how to brush their teeth, would you?"

Operation Clean Hands also offered a free brochure on how, when, and why to wash your hands. A few tips from the brochure are listed here:

When Should You Wash Your Hands?

Wash your hands before you
  • prepare or eat food.
  • treat a cut or a wound, or tend to someone who is sick.

Wash your hands after you

  • handle uncooked foods, particularly raw meat, poultry, or fish.
  • change a diaper.
  • blow your nose, cough, or sneeze.
  • play with or touch a pet, particularly reptiles and exotic animals.
  • handle garbage.
  • tend to someone who is sick or injured.
  • use the restroom.

How Should You Wash Your Hands?

  • Use soap and warm, running water.
  • Wash all surfaces thoroughly, including wrists, palms, back of hands, fingers, and under the fingernails.
  • Rub hands together for at least 10 to 15 seconds.


The survey conducted by the AMS and Bayer Pharmaceutical Division focused on handwashing habits in public restrooms in well-known locales in large cities. The study sites included Penn Station in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and at an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Researchers observed the behavior of 6,333 people; they interviewed more than 1,000 of those people about their handwashing behavior. Among the findings:

  • More than nine in ten adults (94 percent) say they wash their hands after using public restrooms, however, only six in ten (68 percent) were observed doing so.
  • The dirtiest hands are in New York. Only 60 percent of the 2,129 people observed washed their hands after using a restroom in Penn Station.
  • Across all cities, women washed their hands more often than men did (74 percent, compared to 61 percent).

"Handwashing may seem trivial, but failing to do it can have tragic, even deadly consequences," said Dr. Gail Cassell, ASM public and scientific affairs board chair and professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "By not washing our hands regularly, we may be causing our own poor health and spreading germs to others. In fact, the spread of many germs that cause infections---ranging from the common cold to diarrhea---can be reduced by handwashing with soap and water."

Or, as Annette Moore says---OK, we'll give her the last word---"Prevention is the best intervention!"


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Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 08/01/1997
Links last updated 10/28/2008