Features

The great unwashed

National | Americans' reluctance to wash their hands threatens the effectiveness of antibiotics; NYC bottled-water scare a small blip on a healthy business; Hollywood puts a glitzy face on stem-cell research

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

Americas dirty little secret
Has America washed its hands of proper hygiene? A recent survey says that one third of Americans don;t wash their hands after using the bathroom. According to a report released by the American Society of Microbiology, this bit of sloppiness opens millions to the threat of new microbial illnesses and so-called "superbugs" that resist treatment by antibiotics. "While it may seem amusing at first, this is really a very serious issue," said Judy Daly, secretary of the organization. The organization has launched a "Clean Hands Campaign" to spread the word (complete with a website at washup.org). People must wash their hands before and after handling food, pets, or diapers, when they are sick, or around people who are. The survey asked people whether they wash their hands regularly. Then researchers hung out in restrooms. They stood around, endlessly combing their hair or putting on makeup, glancing to see if anybody went for the soap and water. They observed restroom behavior in New York train stations, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Chicago;s Navy Pier, an Atlanta Braves game, and a New Orleans casino. The telephone survey yielded contradictory data: 95 percent of Americans claimed they wash their hands after using public restrooms. Of course there are all sorts of reasons why people might not wash as well while waiting for a train or during the seventh-inning stretch. Women were generally more likely than men to wash. People at the ballpark were the worst offenders. Still, the researchers say that washing up keeps germs from spreading, thus reducing the demand for antibiotic drugs. Over time, these medicines will be less effective because the germs will gain resistance. Cleanliness slows down that process. More than H2O
Bottled water, its fans say, is wonderful, inexpensive, pure, and refreshing. Unless you happen to live in New York City, it seems. A scare hit the Big Apple after five people got sick drinking bottled water contaminated with chemicals. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani warned citizens to take precautions. "When you get bottled water or soda, make sure that it;s sealed ... and smell it before you drink it," he said. The FBI is looking for suspects who may have fouled the water. The first incident came in August, when a woman began bleeding from the mouth after drinking bottled water in a restaurant. Later victims were a man who bought a bottle at a deli and a baby whose mother picked some up at a takeout restaurant. The water was found to contain ammonia or lye. The attacks come as bottled water is booming, with people reaching for it instead of coffee or soft drinks. The claim in its marketing is that the stuff is better;or at least more consistent;than what flows from the tap. Bottled water is a $4.8 billion industry that is growing at about 10 percent a year. Connoisseurs even go to water tastings to find the best varieties. The New York scare has some wondering why the city health department didn;t act sooner to warn people of the problem. Yet the very popularity of bottled water shows that some people don;t trust governments to protect their health. New Hollywood crusade
Parkinson;s disease put Michael J. Fox;s career on hold. Now the actor is crusading for stem-cell research to cure ailments like his. He and actress Mary Tyler Moore went to Washington to make the case for using tax money to support research involving embryonic cells, saying they can help cure Parkinson;s, juvenile diabetes, or Alzheimer;s. The arguments were familiar: "The embryos that are being discussed, according to science, bear as much resemblance to a human being as a goldfish," said Ms. Moore, who chairs the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International. We;re dealing with flesh and blood people now who feel and deal with real debilitation right now and our obligation is to those who are here. Although celebrities rarely have real expertise beyond their own professions, they can publicize favored causes. In this case, Mr. Fox and Ms. Moore support a bill to lift a congressional ban on any research that destroys human embryos. It would also allow women to donate their leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization to federally funded researchers. Republican Arlen Specter and Democrat Tom Harkin back the proposal; a vote is expected later this fall. This research brings up all sorts of scenarios once found in science fiction, with scientists harvesting human beings for experimentation. Stem cells are like skeleton keys to human biology. They are the master cells from which other tissues grow. Researchers say they can use them to cure disease and even repair broken spinal cords. Debate over this issue heated up when the National Institutes of Health announced in August that it would start offering federal funding for stem-cell research (see WORLD, Sept. 9). One roadblock remains: Researchers may work on cells removed from human embryos but are forbidden to do research on the embryo itself. This bill would remove that restriction

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