Dirty hands are everywhere

Dirty hands are everywhere. We touch our hair, our nose or other body parts. We use the bathroom and casually wash our hands. We touch door nobs, handrails, light switches and money, never really thinking about who touched it last. We shake hands or share community bowls of popcorn and wonder how we got sick.

The data is stunning.

  • Sixteen percent of cell phones are contaminated with stool. Even though greater than 90% of people think they adequately washed their hands.
  • In a study from the University of Arizona
    • Phone:  25,127 germs per square inch
    • Desktop surface: 20,961 germs per square inch
    • Keyboard:  3,295 germs per square inch
    • Toilet seat: 49 germs per square inch

For the food handler, this is even more critical. A food handler has the potential to contaminate hundreds of people in a day. That is why the FDA strongly suggests there should be no bare hand contact with ready to eat foods. They recommend using gloves.

Imagine your dentist casually washing his hands after using the bathroom, wiping them on his white coat and then examining your mouth. Get the idea? You wouldn’t allow it. You would expect him to wear gloves.

As a physician, when I was preparing for surgery, we would wash our hands for several minutes, use a scrub brush to clean our hands up to our elbows and clean under our fingernails with a plastic spatula. THEN we would put on gloves.

No one is asking a food handler to go to those extremes, but if we were more conscientious about cleaning our hands it would reduce the number of people who get sick from food.

I was on a medical mission in Tanzania and noted that often people would greet with a forearm instead of shaking hands. When I asked why, I was told that a decade ago they had a cholera epidemic. The World Health Organization conducted a public campaign advising good hand washing before meals and if you had just washed you should greet someone in a way other than shaking hands. Makes sense to me.

Next time you prepare or serve food; or eat, wash your hands. You could be saving someone from a life threatening illness.


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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