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Guest Opinion: Living among the not-so-great unwashed

BY FRANK HARRIS - GUEST OPINION | OCTOBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Just how clean are we?

According to the Bradley Corp., a commercial bathroom and locker-room furnishings manufacturer, a majority of Americans aren’t washing their hands much more now than before H1N1 flu entered our consciousness. Its survey found 54 percent said they washed no more frequently; 55 percent said they washed only with water.

On the other hand, the Soap and Detergent Association, which gives a report card on Americans’ hand cleanliness, says our collective grade went from a C-minus to a B-minus this year.

So we’re doing better.

Well, some of us. It seems that while 6 of 10 females reportedly wash their hands 10 times every day, only 4 of 10 men do so — which lends slight support amid the H1N1 fear that men are apt to be the ultimate pigs.

However, 4 of 10 people of either sex also say they never wash their hands after sneezing or coughing.

So how effective can these hand sanitizers really be if so many aren’t using them? To be truly clean and uninfected would require a fanatical cleanliness on a par with Felix Unger of the 1970s sitcom “The Odd Couple.”

Fanaticism is in the hands of the holder.

Years ago, when I rode the New York subways, I would do my best to avoid putting my hands on the handrails. I would wrap my arm around a handrail and let my shirt catch the germs. But how long does a germ last?

Don’t call me fanatical — I’m just trying to stay clean.

And don’t get me started on the bathroom. Why don’t they put the trash can close to the door so when I use my paper towel to open the door I don’t have to make a long-range shot that misses or have to drop the paper by the door? Then there are the hand dryers, which would be fine if everyone washed their hands. Knowing they don’t, what do you use to open the bathroom door, toilet tissue?

And because that person who didn’t wash his hands is marking every spot, you might as well just keep the paper with you.

That’s because people can be downright funky. And not the good, James Brown-type of funky.

I think cleanliness is a good thing — in sickness as well as in health. That is to say, the fear of sickness should not be the motivation for doing something as simple as washing our hands.

But let’s face it. It’s a funky world. How funky?

Just as it’s been said if we saw how our meat got to the supermarket, we all would become vegetarians, so it is my view that if we put a camera on the average person and followed him around for a day to see what he does with his hands before extending them to ours — we all would wear gloves and a HAZMAT suit till the end of our days.

Frank Harris III is chairman of the journalism department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. A version of this commentary originally appeared in the The Hartford Courant.


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