New Study Shines Surprising Light on Hand Washing and E. Coli

April Wilcox

With the 2019 Global Handwashing Day now behind us, those who may have been sensitive to the idea of regular hand washing during the run-up to the global observance could be settling back into a routine and forgetting just how important washing hands is. Perhaps a new study just published in the Lancet journal will bring the issue to the forefront again.

The study shines a surprising new light on the topic of hand washing and the dreaded E. coli bacteria. It turns out that the average person is more likely to be sickened by E. coli as a result of poor hand washing practices than eating contaminated meat.

Spreading E. Coli Bacteria

The E. coli bacterium is naturally occurring in the digestive systems of many animal species, including human beings. But E. coli is not just a single strain of bacteria. There are multiple strains, some of which are actually good for us. We tend to only hear about the bad strains because these are the ones that make the news.

One of the big problems with E. coli is that the bad strains can make a person awfully sick. The bacteria also spreads quite easily from one person to the next. As such, an outbreak can easily sicken large groups of people with very little effort. This is why there is so much emphasis on E. coli as it relates to contaminated meat.

This brings us to the hand washing link. Good hand washing practices can be more effective against spreading E. coli bacteria than focusing on contaminated meat alone. As previously stated, you are more likely to be exposed to the bacteria due to poor hand washing practices.

What the Study Revealed

The study published in Lancet looked at thousands of samples collected between August 2013 and the end of 2014. Samples were collected from farm slurry, retail food items, raw sewage, and other sources throughout parts of England, Scotland, and Wales.

The researchers tested for a variety of E. coli strains in everything from human feces to meat and poultry. And while they found varying levels of the different bacterium in each of the samples, their data concluded that the strains of E. coli most likely to make human beings sick are transmitted person-to-person more frequently than through contaminated meat.

This suggests that washing one’s hands after using the restroom is the best way to prevent spreading the E. coli naturally contained in human feces – the same E. coli likely to make another person sick. Of course, being careful to handle all meat products with caution is still important.

Improving Hand Washing at Work

Studies continue to show the importance of proper hand washing practices. There is not much to be done in the home environment with the exception of parents establishing and maintaining hand washing policies for the entire family. In the public sector though, a lot can be done.

Salt Lake City-based Alsco, a nationally known provider of commercial linens, uniform rental, and janitorial supplies, says a good place to start is improving hand washing at work. Every company – not just those involved in food service – should make a concerted effort to establish and follow through on hand washing policies among all staff members. Such policies can, and should, include proper signage in all employee and public restrooms.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that regular hand washing is more important than we ever thought before. Now that we know its relationship to E. coli, there is even more motivation to be more diligent.

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