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Handwashing Could Prevent Disease, Save Lives

September 11, 2012

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People are not washing their hands nearly as much as they say they are or as much as they should, and it is quite literally making us sick. While it's important for everyone to wash their hands, restaurant workers have an added responsibility to keep their hands clean.

Hello, I'm Marilyn Underwood, Ph.D., Director of Environmental Health for Contra Costa Health Services. A couple of months ago some employees of California Pizza Kitchen in Walnut Creek neglected to wash their hands, resulting not only in a temporary closure of that restaurant but about 130 reported cases of norovirus, a stomach bug that can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea.

Though the employees should have remained home if they were sick, the outbreak could have been limited had they followed proper handwashing guidelines.

If we don't wash our hands, we run the risk of spreading those germs to other places and people. This is a very common way for disease to spread.

The rate of handwashing violations during restaurant inspections has held steady since 2007. Something as simple as handwashing shouldn't cause as many violations as it does. And restaurants aren't alone. We've seen illness outbreaks related to unclean hands occur at schools, health care facilities and in the home.

We need to create a culture where handwashing is a priority, not only in restaurants but at home, work and everywhere. A 2005 survey by Harris Interactive found that about one in five adults do not wash their hands after using a restroom. We can increase this rate by improving hygiene education and encouraging hygienic behavior. Clean hands prevent illness and can save lives.

Proper handwashing consists of at least 15 seconds of scrubbing with warm water and soap, followed by a rinse. Use a clean towel to dry your hands. Fifteen seconds is about the time it takes to hum the Happy Birthday song twice.

While antibacterial gels may be somewhat effective at killing germs, they do not replace regular handwashing for food handlers. You can find out how your favorite restaurant compares when it comes to handwashing by visiting and clicking on Environmental Health.

For more information about handwashing, visit

Thanks for listening.

About the Author

Marilyn Underwood, Ph.D.
Contra Costa Environmental Health