Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hand Sanitizer Mania

In Frontiers on Germicidal Living, Glenn Reynolds notes:

Now they're distributing free hand sanitizer on the Washington Metro, as a means of preventing flu. Will it work? I guess we'll find out. My guess is that it will do some good. And when I mentioned this on my blog, numerous readers wrote in to report that all sorts of places, from childcare centers, to shopping malls, to cruise ships, were bringing hand sanitizers out and encouraging their use. (I like the idea of sanitizing people who go through a buffet line.)

But I think this is just the beginning. As I've noted here before, the false sense of security that resulted from the introduction of antibiotics caused us to let our guard down on a lot of sanitation and public-health issues. But with the growth of antibiotic resistance -- along with threats like avian flu and bioterrorism -- I think that people are likely to start taking these kinds of public health issues much more seriously.

Yes, hand sanitizers are becoming very popular as a preventive measure. Readily available, easy to use, and effective...up to 90% effective if the proper formulation is used. The CDC has done some tests and found 40% ethanol merely spreads the germs around, though it is effective on fungi, and 62% ethanol is the magic number. So be sure to read your labels.

Objectively I think hand "sanitizing" is a good thing simply because the ethanol is more effective than merely washing one's hands. Subjectively, though, I don't think we should get carried away with thinking we can ever be totally sanitized in our homes, schools, or workplaces--nor should we want to be.

Besides the simple fact that our hands are not the only way germs get transferred into our systems, our immune systems can be quite effective in building up resistance to certain types of germs and, you know, actually require exposure to do so. If you live in a glass bubble, totally germ free, it's possible to die from a simple cold virus. Well, I don't know if that's true, or just an old wive's tale, but it's something to ponder.

Also I've heard that squeaky clean kids have a tendency to get really sick when exposed to certain types of germs as opposed to kids who are allowed to play in dirt . Another wive's tale?

I've worked in many places and over the decades have learned that when I start a new job (or a new school as a child) I always get sick within the first couple of weeks. A cold or minor flu. The 'community germs' in my new workplace, which don't affect the other workers, affect me because they're new to my system. To me that is not a bug but a feature of becoming part of the new community. Talk about bio-diversity!

Besides, I think getting a cold once a year is good for society as a whole. It may cost businesses worker time, but if the individual stops fighting and gives in to the cold and says 'I won't worry about anything until this cold is gone in a day or two' it is a good emotional safety valve. A vacation, if you will, from everyday worries. Just stay in bed with your kleenex and Vix and stop worrying about the world.

My simple rules are:

(1)Never touch your eyes
(2)Don't let anyone bite you
(3)Avoid salad bars in the winter

I must admit that these days I'm more worried that I'm isolated from others' germs, than about keeping my hands clean. I haven't gotten out much for the last few years and fear that if I do become exposed I will get really sick because there are germs out there now my body has never heard of.


cf said...

I fly a lot, and find that it is often impossible to keep from catching lots of bugs unless I use hand sanitizers. The maintenance of planes has fallen off and they are dirty. You can't always get past the cart to wash your hands and if you do, you still have to unlock the door which has god knows how many germs on it. And people fly with all sorts of diseases.

If you use subways and public transportation I'd say you should also use them frequently.

Syl said...

Heck, I used subways during rush hour in Manhattan for twelve years. I'm still okay.

It just seems to me it's all a bit overblown.

And Knuck, I remember the same kind of scary predictions as the WWF makes many years ago. Those didn't come to pass.

However, one of the things about life is that it expands to fill all available space (and use all available resources). That's why I don't think there's life on Mars. We wouldn't need special tests to find it, it would be obvious.

But, of course, there WILL come a time when we can no longer cope on this one planet.

Just when that will be? shrug.