BY ELIZABETH FIEND You already know that you’re supposed to wash your hands after going to the toilet and before food preparation and eating. But did you know it’s recommended to wash up after eating as well? Or that the best place to sneeze is into your elbow? And that you shouldn’t use the hand blower in the public rest room, it might actually be blowing germs onto your just-washed hands? It’s so important to wash hands because the flu, diarrhea and colds are transmitted either in the air or on surfaces you touch. Germs, bacteria, and viruses can live for two hours on hands and on a clean, dry surface. On a wet surface they can live for weeks.
Your average pair of worn undies contains a .1 gram of feces. Salmonella, hepatitis A and rotavirus, all found in fecal matter, can cause violent diarrhea and terrible tummy aches. Water must be at at least 140 degrees to sanitize and kill theses germs, yet only 5 percent of Americans use water that hot for their washing (isn’t it amazing the things we know?). These nasty germs can also survive the average 28-minute drying cycle. Therefore, experts recommend that you wash your hands after doing laundry. Hardcore, huh? Unwashed hands kill a lot of people each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that poor hand washing contributes to almost half of the 9,000 deaths caused each year by outbreaks of food-borne illnesses like salmonella, shigellosis, hepatitis A and E.coli. More people are killed by germs in hospitals each year than by fires, car crashes and drowning combined, and the government has estimated that about 20,000 of those deaths might have been prevented by the simple act of proper hand washing.
You’ve heard of those disastrous cruises where untold numbers of passengers come down with the super bad-ass stomach flu caused by the norovirus. This bug is so viral some people may be contagious for up to two weeks — after they’ve recovered! The single, most painless way to stay healthy and to stop the spread of illness to others is to wash your freaking hands. Spend 20 seconds rubbing your hands — with soap — under the faucet. Wash all the surfaces, the front, backs and in-between the fingers. Do it every time. And for crying out loud, keep your hands away from your face ? your mouth, eyes, nose — and throw away your tissues immediately after use.
As essential as hand washing is to safeguarding our health, it’s actually a relatively new concept. During the 19th century, up to a quarter of all women who delivered babies in European and American hospitals died from childbed-fever caused by the bacterium puerperal sepsis. It was noted in a hospital in Vienna that the death rates in the wards run by midwives was 2-3 percent, but in the wards run by doctors the death rate was over 10 percent. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes (yeah, father of the Supreme Court justice) floated the theory that the fever was spread to patients by doctors who were performing autopsies and then delivering babies, and that it might be wise for these doctors to wash their hands when they moved from patient to patient. The idea was laughed at — by the midwives, who were already washing their hands. One for the ladies! Thirty-eight years later, doctors still weren’t washing up. In 1881, President James Garfield was shot by an assassin and died several days later (in New Jersey). It’s now widely believed that had the attending doctors washed their hands before reaching into the President’s chest to remove the bullet, he would have lived. Soap is a cleansing agent made from the salts of vegetable or animal fats — and by its nature, it cleans and removes germs. Bacterium sticks to the soaps fatty acids and then is enclosed in droplets of water and washed away. But what about antibacterial soap? At the 40th Annual Meeting of the Infectious Disease Society of America, a randomized, double-blind, controlled, clinical study — funded by the National Institutes of Nursing Research — concluded that antimicrobial and antibacterial soaps offer no greater protection from germs than regular, old fashioned soap. The simplest reason they don’t work is that many common diseases are caused by viruses, which aren’t killed by anti-bacterial soap. Triclosan, the active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps, is bad ju-ju for you, your family and the environment. Remarkably, there’s never been any study ? nor is one required by law — proving that antibacterial soaps cut down on illness. But there have been studies that suggest triclosan is doing actual harm, and quite a bit of it.
For the past few years we’ve been seeing more and more types of the dreaded “super-bug” — antibiotic-resistant bacteria — and antibacterial soap may be contributing to their development. Triclosan only kills off the weakest, most sensitive of bacteria. The mean, nasty, harder-to-kill and more dangerous bacteria, such as staphylococcus aureus and E. coli, aren’t killed by antibacterial soaps. Antibacterial soap, by killing off the wussy bacteria, creates an unknown, unnatural, environment that might allow for drug-resistant bacteria to form. Triclosan is dangerous on other levels as well. According to studies done at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, it was found that when triclosan reacts with chlorinated water (like tap water, for instance) it creates dangerous levels of the known human carcinogen chloroform. The research went further to suggest that adding sunlight to the mix produces chlorinated dioxins, another cancer-causing agent. The study concluded that chlorinated dioxins are forming in kitchen sinks and swimming pools across the country.
The dangers of triclosan don’t stop at the kitchen sink. Triclosan-tainted water goes down the drain, and close to 95 percent of the triclosan used in consumer products will eventually find its way into our water treatment plants — which cannot remove it. The triclosan-infused water is then released into our streams and rivers. A U.S. Geologic Survey study found that triclosan was one of the most frequently detected pollutants, with some of the highest concentrations of any toxin observed. If that’s not enough, a Swedish study found frightening levels of triclosan in the breast milk of 3 in 5 women. Use of antibacterial soaps may actually be retarding the natural development processes of your baby, rendering them immuno-deficient in crucial ways. During their first year of life, exposure to germs is necessary for babies to develop certain antibodies which will, later in life, help them fight infection.
Choose your soaps wisely. Triclosan is found in 75 percent of liquid soaps and a bit less than 30 percent of bar soaps. Yep, that’s 45 percent of all soaps on the market. Fortunately, it’s required by the FDA that triclosan be included on the product ingredient list. The Norristown-based company Sun and Earth makes a lovely, simple, and effective liquid hand soap that contains no triclosan. The American Medical Association has counseled the FDA, since 2000, to monitor — perhaps even regulate — home use of antimicrobials. Finally, in the fall of 2006, the FDA announced they will study the problem and consider if restricting antibacterial soaps is in order.
END NOTE: Triclosan is also found in other consumer products, including Colgate Total Mouthwash, the Reach Antibacterial Toothbrush, Old Spice High Endurance Stick Deodorant, even in Teva Sandals. There’s already a class action law suit gearing up for people who feel they’ve gotten cancer from triclosan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Elizabeth Fiend is Philadelphia’s Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Most people don’t know it yet, but that will change. Miss Fiend is host of the Big Tea Party. But enough of my yackin’, here’s Elizabeth with the 411 on her column: “Most people don’t think about the fact that science doesn’t determine our government’s regulations and recommendations for health and the environment, it’s sleazy politicking and backroom lobbying that makes the rules and I would like to bring this fact more to the forefront,” she says. “My philosophy is decidedly anti-big business/governmental lobbying but in line with the science of (my idol, ok crush) Dr. Walter Willett, Harvard University School of Public Health. There’s an edge to it, but it’s not goofy new age-y stuff with no basis in fact. And besides all that, I am the most fun of all the health advocates. I’m the only one who consistently wears pink and is brewing absinthe in her kitchen (excuse me, that’s illegal, infusing absinthe).” Word.