Your mother was right: Wash your hands

Did you wash your hands? Like millions of kids sent back to the sink before countless meals, 95 percent of adults surveyed about hand-washing say they did - but one-third of those watched in public restrooms didn't really, according to a study released Monday.

Despite increased publicity about the importance of such a basic step in protecting against the spread of infection, the proportion of those who skip washing their hands is almost exactly the same as found in a similar survey five years ago.

''While it may seem amusing at first, this is really a very serious issue,'' said Judy Daly, secretary of the American Society of Microbiology, which sponsored the survey. ''The more people do their part to control the spread of infections, the less we have to use antibiotics, which lose their potency over time as bacteria develop resistance to them.''

The survey involved a traditional telephone poll to inquire about washing habits and observations made by trained observers working in public restrooms in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco.

The observers found that those least likely to wash in public restrooms were men in Atlanta, while those most likely to wash up were women in Chicago.

Women generally were more likely than men to at least say they wash after various activities. For instance, 40 percent said they washed their hands after sneezing or coughing, compared to 22 percent of men.

Fifty-four percent of women said they wash their hands after petting a dog or cat, while just 36 percent of men said they did so. And 86 percent of women said they wash their hands after handling a diaper, compared with 70 percent of men.

The society, which released the study results at a scientific conference on anti-microbial agents in Toronto, has been running a ''Clean Hands Campaign'' since the first survey to encourage hand-washing.

But ''obviously, Americans haven't picked up or retained the message. We believe the situation might be worse than it appears, because some people may have spotted the observers and worried that 'Mom was watching,' '' Daly said. ''In the absence of other people, the numbers may even have been dramatically less.''

While many people believe that cold germs are spread through sneezing and coughing, the majority of transmission comes from hand-to-hand contact.

''Hand-washing is the simplest, most effective thing people can do to reduce the spread of infectious diseases,'' said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the hospital infections program at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at) or


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