Wash Your Hands

I do not mean to sound like a prude, but I make a point of washing my hands every time I go to the bathroom.

Call it a personality quirk.  It was the hygienic habit upon which my beloved grandmother most insisted, and one I have never quite kicked.  Indeed, on occasion I will even take to the sink before sitting down to dinner, using both the water and the soap.  If I’m feeling especially hoity-toity, I will do the same before breakfast and lunch as well.

Nonetheless, I am acutely aware that many of my fellow Americans do not trouble themselves with this admittedly time-consuming activity, and I would not presume to impose my own snooty traditions upon them.

In a fresh study published by the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers found that a resounding 5.3 percent of people using public restrooms washed their hands for at least 15 seconds.  (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend scrubbing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.)

Among the subjects observed, 10.3 percent did not wash their hands at all, while an additional 22.8 percent used water but not soap.  The report notes that “the presence of even discreet observers could have affected behavior, probably encouraging more hand washing,” which somehow does not make me feel any better.

For that matter, neither do the signs in the restrooms at Starbucks, which provide a step-by-step explanation (complete with accompanying illustrations) about how hand-washing works.

Ostensibly, these diagrams serve to reassure Starbucks customers that the coffee behemoth takes the “all employees must wash hands” policy seriously.  To the contrary, I dare say we can be forgiven for growing suspicious of the company’s hiring practices, if these signs fairly reflect its estimation of the intelligence of the average employee.

I remember well the moment in my junior high school cooking class when the teacher cautioned us, “If you saw what happens in the kitchen of any fast food restaurant, you’d never eat there again.”

All these years later, thanks to a plethora of enterprising documentarians and other journalists who have done the dirty work for us, we no longer have to idly speculate about what atrocities our Big Mac suffered on its journey from the slaughterhouse to our plate, let alone the much shorter, but no less treacherous, path from the grill to the counter.

It was only last week that America was subjected to a photograph of a Taco Bell worker using his tongue to polish a tall stack of hard taco shells, to which Bill Maher observed, rightly enough, “What?  Like Taco Bell was health food before?”

The debate we might have, from these anecdotes and many others, is to what extent personal hygiene and cleanliness is a personal choice, and at what point it becomes a societal imperative.

The matter of fast food workers is among the easier ones to adjudicate.  It is fairly difficult to argue that the folks who handle your food are not responsible for ensuring their paws are reasonably sterile.  While we cannot expect our lunch to be free of every last micro particle that could possibly cause us harm, it would seem a reasonable enough request for it to be devoid of the urinary and fecal matter of the good folks who prepared it.

But what of the rest of us?  Do we not owe the same courtesy to our fellow customers?

As the cliché goes, every time you touch a doorknob, you are also touching the hand of every other person who touched that doorknob since it was last cleaned.  The same goes for every tabletop, every salt shaker and, of course, every coin and dollar bill.  And how often does anyone bring his stack of legal tender to the cleaners?

We know we inhabit a dirty world, and most of the time we passively accept it and hope for the best.  What other choice do we have?  In a culture in which one in three does not believe in using soap, things do not look promising.

The challenge for us—individually and collectively—is to stop viewing hand-washing and the like as mere matters of personal preference, and regard them instead as mandatory prerequisites for living in a civilized society, in which our own behavior affects others in ways we are not always aware but ought to be.

As a nominal libertarian, I take no pleasure in the notion that I should behave for the benefit of people other than me, and that my actions have consequences outside my own self.  However, part of becoming an enlightened person is to face unpleasant facts, and the moral imperative of washing one’s hands is one of them.