A new study has revealed that our hands are far more likely to make us unwell than the grubby surfaces we strive to avoid in public places.
In the study, commissioned by sanitising water brand Aquaint, twenty-five swabs were taken from multiple high street and shopping centre locations across St Albans and Luton.
All of the swabs were taken from dirty looking surfaces in and around food outlets such as cafés and fast food restaurants including tables, public benches, escalator handrails, high chairs and children’s ride-on toys.
In all cases, the surfaces were given a ‘poor’ visual rating which indicates stains, debris and signs of wear. The samples were then laboratory tested for a range of harmful bacteria including staphylococcus, ecoli and enterobacteriaceae which has been linked to deaths.
Despite selecting dirty looking surfaces, there were insufficient traces of harmful bacteria to indicate an actual threat to health. This means that the reading was so low that the bacteria were either not present or in tiny quantities (in most cases less than 10 per square cm).
Looking more generally, the ‘TVC actual’, or overall quantity of bacteria measured was relatively low – 33,000 in the worst example, a wooden public bench. To put this in perspective, the average person carries over 10 million bacteria on the hands alone and a University of Arizona study (2012) found that a typical kitchen sponge will contain several million bacteria. There was also no notable difference between St Albans city and Luton town centre.
Alongside this study, Aquaint polled members of the public on habits and attitudes to germs. Unsurprisingly, 92% of those polled said they would avoid dirty looking tables and seats, citing health as the primary concern. By contrast, only 13% said they would avoid eating unless they had washed or cleansed their hands.
This indifference towards hand washing tallies with research by Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in 2012 which found that faecal matter is present on 26% of hands in the UK. Faecal matter is rife with germs – around one billion per gram. The UN estimates that hand washing alone could save more than a million lives a year from diarrhoeal diseases and prevent respiratory infections.
Bola Lafe, founder of Aquaint, said: “This study highlights the fact that people avoid what they believe will make them unwell. In fact, we need to narrow the lens when it comes to spotting potential risks to health. Our hands operate a highly effective public transport network for bacteria and viruses. During the course of a day, we all touch hundreds of surfaces and have varying attitudes to hand washing. This is totally out of our control so rather than just avoiding certain areas, good hand hygiene should be the top priority. Our hands are in frequent contact with our mouths or with items that we put in our mouths, making them the fastest route to illness.
“Visual cues about germs and bacteria can be very misleading. In areas of high footfall, especially in the sorts of places we tested, surfaces are touched and wiped by thousands of hands, bags and cloths every day. Although these surfaces looked unpleasant, we found very little evidence of harmful bacteria because germs are picked up and deposited all of the time.”
He added: “A dirty table is not pleasant but neither is it dangerous by default. By contrast, a gleaming shiny table could well be harboring high levels of potentially dangerous bacteria. The lesson is that unless you’ve cleaned your hands as well as the surface, it’s a lottery.”
The study was commissioned by Aquaint to understand how instinctive reactions to environmental conditions might inadvertently lead to an impact on health.