Dirty Truth about American Hygiene

National Clean Hands Week has just ended, and our resident humorist shares some disturbing results about America's hygiene habits.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Luggage isn't the only headache in airports these days. There are also the bathrooms, as Senator Larry Craig knows all too well.

Our humorous Brian Unger notes that National Clean Hands Week just ended. And now comes big news about Americans and their hygiene habits. Here's Brian with that news in today's Unger Report.

BRIAN UNGER: National Clean Hands Week, sponsored by the Clean Hands Coalition, was a real week-long celebration of hand cleaning, aimed at getting Americans to wash their hands after putting them in their noses and in their pants, and other places. From my own personal observations inside the men's room at Los Angeles International Airport, this year's National Clean Hands Week was another abysmal failure.

In San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and New York, the news isn't good either. According to the American Society for Microbiology, only 66 percent of men wash their hands after handling their business. Women did better at 88 percent, which tells us that women have cleaner hands than men, and that some people, who can find time to stand in line for three days to buy an iPhone, can't find 30 seconds to rub their hands together with soap and water.

What the ASM study really tells us is this. Americans lie about having clean hands. Ninety-two percent say they wash their hands after using a public restroom. But researchers observe something different among the 6,076 people in public restroom in four cities at six different locations. Think dozens of Senator Larry Craigs watching you go to the bathroom, but without the foot tapping.

These are the locations ASM researchers observed, the same ones they observed in 2005: Turner Field in Atlanta, The Museum of Science and Industry in Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Grand Central and Penn stations in New York City, and the Ferry Terminal Farmer's Market in San Francisco.

Hand washing is down 6 percent from two years ago. The city with the cleanest hands: Chicago. The city with the dirtiest hands: San Francisco. And where should you think twice about shaking a man's hand? Turner Field in Atlanta. Only 57 percent of guys would observe washing their hands there. That makes the home of the Braves the home of the cold and flu virus. The best place to shake a man's hand was equal to the worst place to shake a woman's hand: Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Eighty-one percent of both men and women would observe hand washing. There is something about our ocean dwelling friends that reminds us all to wash up after freeing Willy.

So, at the close of another clean hands week, we know this about our dirty-handed society: anyone who's job it is to spend a day in a public restroom, watching to see if people wash their hands, is a national hero. That's an awful, terrible job. But we need these U.S. hands inspectors as much as we need U.N. arms inspectors. Thank you, hand washing watchers. I'd shake your hand but, well, you know.

UNGER: And that is today's Unger Report. I'm Brian Unger.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a squeaky clean production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

COHEN: I'm Alex Cohen.

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