Hand Washing in the Age of Aquarius

by Mark Stewart on July 9, 2011

Since the 1940s, the well-known magazine, Highlights for Children, has had a popular column that attempts to socialize children into behaving in ways that follow Western mores.  The two children in the cartoons, Goofus and Gallant, are proxies for the archetypes of bad and good behavior, respectively.  Goofus will take more apples than he is given, whereas Gallant will share the apple he is given with those who received none.  And so on.  In this spirit, I would like to create my own two characters that represent stereotypes of American citizens upon hearing new findings from public health professionals: Steadfast and Flaky.

In our recent past, we can remember times when it has been reported that various common foods or activities are a risk to good health, only to have the decision reversed after a short period of time.  “Eggs are dangerous, they are bad for your cholesterol!”  “It turns out eggs have lecithin, so they are in fact not harmful!”  “Coffee causes cancer!”  “In fact, coffee does not cause cancer.”  “Butter contains fat and cholesterol, so health professionals are recommending that we use margarine.”  “Margarine has been found to have no greater health benefits over butter, and in fact may have greater health risks!”  As an individual who is about to join the ranks of the public health professionals, I have been worried about Steadfast and Flaky.

Steadfast says: “My mother always had her morning eggs, cooked in butter.  She loved her coffee.  She lived to be 75, and was healthy as a horse her whole life.  I am going to have my eggs and coffee.”

Flaky says: “Oh my god!  My mother ate eggs cooked in butter every day.  She drank several cups of coffee; she loved the stuff!  She only lived to be 75.  I am not going to let this happen to me!”

Who lived longer?  Steadfast or Flaky?  I will let you, and your own biases, answer that one.  (And, is longevity the sign of a good, successful life?)  But, I have a new piece of information for Steadfast and Flaky.  Are you ready?  This is big news.  Hold on to your hats, folks.  (“When a German scientist says ‘Hold on to your hat’ it is not casual conversation.  Hat – hold!”  If you have never seen Mel Brooks’s cameo appearance in The Muppet Movie, you have missed out on a performance for the ages.  YouTube it.)  A recent blog on the Scientific American website has revealed that there have been recent studies that have evidence that suggests that washing your hands is dangerous!

Oh, dear.  I have all the sympathy in the world for Flaky.  What is he to do?  In my bizarre, twisted mind I instantly imagined an individual who stopped washing his hands, who stopped cooking food, who stopped using diapers on his infant, and who now allows his children to run and play in areas where animals have recently defecated.  Then, he would go on Oprah and talk about how we have been lied to by scientists all these years, how there is a conspiracy among scientist and the bathroom product companies to sell more soap, how children are more healthy when surrounded by filth, how he has a “degree from the University of Google!”

I also had memories of the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.  President Obama made an announcement that people should wash their hands to stop the epidemic.  By all reports, this simple statement by a powerful man seemed to have an effect in increasing the frequency with which Americans washed their hands.  However, not more than a week after this announcement, Arthur Reingold, the head of epidemiology at University of California, Berkley, made a statement in Newsweek that washing hands likely has little effect in preventing H1N1 as it is not passed well through germs on objects but rather through respiratory means.  Poor, poor, Flaky.

The Rob Dunn blog post on the Scientific American website made the point that we now live shielded by antimicrobial wipes and antibiotic impregnated plastics as our line of defense against the contaminated objects and surfaces that make up our surroundings.  Furthermore, in truth, the results of the studies seem to suggest that the use of antibiotic soaps can have detrimental effects on chronically ill individuals and offer no increased protection to other people rather than indicating that hand washing being dangerous.  This is in addition to the effects that happen when huge amounts of antibiotics (generally triclosan) are released into the environment and our waters.  But, when the media of soundbites gets a hold on the story, will that information come across, or will “Hand washing is dangerous” be the only message?

Public health professionals use data to demonstrate risk and benefit.  However, when the data is conflicting the results still tend to get out.  (Whether this is due to status seeking scientists or media that needs to fill time, or both, is a question for another time.)  Steadfast and Flaky are at risk of bad information.  How is a layperson supposed to know when the information is capricious?  She can’t.  And this will continue to be an issue in our age of instant news and Internet blogs like this one and Scientific American and less reputable ones.  However, the writing of this blog post has now pushed me to the point where I have decided to stop purchasing soaps with antibiotics.  Am I Flaky now?  And, is that a bad thing?

Mark Stewart holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Michigan and is currently a Master’s student in the Epidemiology Department at the School of Public Health.

Previous posts by Mark Stewart:

Zombie Apocalypse: A Thinking Man’s Response

No related posts.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: