The forgotten merits of clean hands

Two students on a mission teach Postscript a proper handwashing lesson

Leala Tomlinson and Lisa Winnik show off their immaculate hands.
Leala Tomlinson and Lisa Winnik show off their immaculate hands.

When Robert Fulghum wrote All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, he wasn’t kidding. After all, the most important lessons in life are learned very early—we just have a tendency to consistently forget them.

Lessons like the importance of having clean hands, for example.

Like Fulghum, who wrote the book for amnesiac adults everywhere, Queen’s students Leala Tomlinson and Lisa Winnik, both Nurs ’06, are trying to teach the basic—but often forgotten—merits of washing your hands properly.

Their “Clean Hands” project, started as a part of their community health class, has grown beyond their wildest imagination. They’ve participated in health fairs and they were on the air at FLY FM—raising awareness in the community as well as on campus. They set up a station at Health Services and gave demonstrations of proper handwashing procedures. They put up posters in the JDUC, Mac-Corry and in Vic Hall. By the end of the year, they hope to have posters illustrating the steps of proper handwashing in every bathroom of major buildings on campus, including residences.

“There’s between 10,000 to 100,000 germs on your hands within any [given] moment,” Tomlinson tells me.

That sounds like a lot.

“And those germs can live up to five minutes on your hands as soon as you touch something,” Winnik continues. “You touch the desk … whoever was sitting there that had E. coli on their hands … and you think of all the things you touch in five minutes … there are a lot of areas you can transmit these germs.” These areas include your face and your mouth, she said, which are great breeding grounds for other health risks such as the flu, hepatitis A and pink eye.

To get a proper sense of how clean Queen’s students really are, Tomlinson and Winnik conducted a live observation in one of the women’s washrooms at the JDUC.

“Fifteen per cent of [the people] we saw do not wash their hands … they just walked right out,” Winnik says.

If that was the stats for the women’s bathroom, I’m not sure if I want to know the cleanliness status of the men’s.

Tomlinson and Winnik also observed the hand sanitizer stations located in both Leonard and Ban Righ cafeterias, and were shocked by the students’ neglect.

“We sat and watched 120 students, and only two students used it,” Winnik tells me.

That is 98 per cent of the students not washing their hands before eating.

As I squirm uncomfortably in my seat, looking gravely concerned on the outside, I come to a slow realization that I had never even noticed the presence of the hand sanitizer near the caf.

I am a walking germ nest.

Maybe it’s time to learn. Now is the chance to redeem the countless times I’ve walked past the “wash your hands properly” posters in my high school. So how does one properly wash one’s hands?

Tomlinson and Winnik break it down for me kindly. For soap and water, they explain, I should work up a good lather and scrub each hand from wrist to fingertips for at least 10 seconds. Afterwards, I should scrub thoroughly between fingers (with my fingers interlocking each other), rinse thoroughly with warm water, and dry thoroughly

—preferably with paper towel.

“They suggest … sing[ing] ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself twice, or the alphabet song,” says Winnik of the time one should spend scrubbing.

I am starting to mentally panic. I don’t recall lathering up my hands long enough for the duration of an alphabet song. Which can only mean I have not been washing my hands and killing all those germs properly, ever. And apparently, 93 per cent of the students Winnik and Tomlinson observed have not learned either.

But there are other things I should be concerned about as well, such as the choice of soap. “[Anti-bacterial soap] is unnecessary for normal day-to-day [use].” Tomlinson informs me.

But all I have at my house is anti-bacterial soap, I tell them, my inner panic slowly rising.

“[Anti-bacterial soap] also starts mutating the germs in large quantities … that’s why they suggest that you switch,” Tomlinson says. Also, anti-bacterial soap only “sort of” kills germs, unlike an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. So hand sanitizers do work—so much for the myth of them not being as effective.

To make full use of them, one should look for an ethyl alcohol-based sanitizer, with the alcohol level varying from 60 to 62 per cent. Any concentration higher than 62 per cent will dry out your hands.

Make a cup in your hands and place a quarter-size amount of hand sanitizer in the cup, dipping fingernails (a prime germ spot) into the sanitizer for optimal effect. Then you should switch the sanitizer glob into your other hand, dip your remaining fingernails, and proceed to rub the sanitizer around the rest of your hands.

How long should it be wet for? Twenty seconds, again.

I concoct a mental image of my hands becoming a breeding nest for super-sized bacteria, and quickly shake them out of my mind. Tomlinson and Winnik definitely instigated me to rethink my hygiene.

What other changes are they hoping to see?

Tomlinson and Winnik are working with a Commerce group to bring more hand sanitizer stations around the “high-traffic food areas” like the JDUC. The stations will be set up next year. This is a great development to see, especially because of the age of campus washrooms and the existence of handles that everyone inevitably has to touch.

“There’s hardly any bathroom in Queen’s that’s hands-free … and not every bathroom has paper towels,” Tomlinson says. She adds that it’s difficult to implement change once something has been built already. That’s why they are drafting a proposal for the Queen’s Centre to make the bathrooms hands-free

—that way, hand washing won’t become so futile.

“Every little bit counts … it’s a start,” Winnik says. “Hopefully someone can take over this project next year and continue on what we’ve done … hopefully we can start making changes around campus.”

On my way out, I head to the washroom. Standing in front of the mirror, I scrub my hands furiously, humming “Happy Birthday” to myself twice like a madwoman. A girl coming out of the stall shoots an inquisitive glance my way, and barely even gets any soap on her hands. Excuse me, you’ve forgotten the back of your hand—I almost correct her, but she walks right out.

I guess change is going to take time.

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