Let me point out right at the start that I am not an “obsessive-compulsive”: I do not scrub up to the elbows for a full five minutes after inadvertently touching my living room rug. I do not wear rubber gloves and a surgical mask on a daily basis. I would not throw away a pair of shoelaces because they came untied and touched a men’s room floor. (Well, to be honest, I might throw them away.) Nevertheless, I am deeply concerned about germs and their easy transmission through direct contact, which we humans have suspected since at least 1847, when the underappreciated Ignaz Semmelweis first ordered medical students at the Vienna General Hospital to wash their hands between performing autopsies and examining pregnant women. (Austria rightly put Semmelweis’s picture on a postage stamp.) Study after study in the last few years has emphasized the importance of hand washing in killing germs — the Centers for Disease Control recommends 15 to 20 seconds of vigorous scrubbing — and warned of the dangers in everyday environments, particularly the workplace. A 2002 report by the University of Arizona found the typical worker’s desk has 21,000 germs per square inch, compared to 49 germs per square inch on the typical office toilet seat.
Still, in this day of anti-bacterial soaps, hand lotions, and moist towelettes, when we know so much about germs, I am continually amazed at the lack of common sense anti-bacterial practices among 21st-century Americans. A newly released study conducted for the American Society of Microbiology and the Soap and Detergent Association (sign me up!) found that 10 percent of women and 25 percent of men do not wash their hands after using a public restroom, and, worse perhaps, a mere third of adults wash their hands after sneezing. These results were not a surprise to the germ-conscious. Throughout my working career, I have noted the carefree habits of my co-workers and business associates when it comes to basic hygienic practices. Double-dipping — despite being brought to the public’s attention by a famous episode of Seinfeld — continues unabated, as does the licking of one’s finger when distributing handouts at a meeting. (I see that Office Depot sells something called the “Acco Swingline Gripeez Finger Pad” that seeks to do away with the need to lick one’s digits on the job. Genius!) Short-sighted bosses I have known encourage sick employees to come to work, though experts logically point out that in the long run this only results in additional lost work hours, as the sick employee makes his co-workers ill.
One might expect a respite from this germ-laden environment away from the Monday through Friday workweek. But I have found this not to be the case, and, unfortunately, one of the worst places of exposure to my infected brethren is at my local Catholic church. In our post-Vatican II age, there are several possible opportunities when germs can be had from your pew-mate through hand-to-hand contact. I have come to dread especially the Sign of Peace, the time when we interrupt the most solemn part of the Mass to say a friendly “howdy” to our neighbor, a handshake seemingly a required part of the ritual in the United States. In years past, I would do my best to sit at least five pews away from my nearest co-religionist to avoid contact. Even so, I could not always escape the overzealous member of the congregation who would contort his body to reach his hand across several pews. When forced to sit near other people, I would simply keep my hands clasped in prayer and politely nod and smile in greeting, but there were still those who would place a hand over my clasped ones.
What is the germophobe to do? One risks being made a social pariah if one objects to the poor hygienic practices of others. “Sorry, I don’t shake hands,” does not exactly ensure one’s election to the parish council. Likewise, “Could you please hand me an unlicked copy of the report?” does not win friends and influence people at work. We germophobes are left to do our best, to wash up frequently and suffer often in silence and fear. OK, I have been typing on my keyboard for a while now — time to wash up!