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SARS Could Have A Hand In Bathroom Habits

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CHICAGO -- It may take an international plague to get people to remember to wash their hands.

Travelers in Toronto, the scene of a major SARS outbreak in the spring, were more likely than travelers in five other North American cities to wash their hands after using the restroom, a study released here Monday says.

In the service of science, researchers hung around airport restrooms last month and surreptitiously watched to see who washed their hands after using the facilities. The observations of 7,541 bathroom users were supplemented by a telephone survey of 1,000 adults. Among the findings:

* Women (83%) are more likely to wash up than men (74%) on average. The difference was most pronounced at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, where 92% of women washed their hands, compared with 69% of men. But in San Francisco, 80% of men and only 59% of women washed their hands.

* Though 95% of people told pollsters they always wash up after using public bathrooms, observers noted only 78% actually doing so.

* That's an improvement over a similar study in 2000, when 67% people were seen to wash their hands after using public bathrooms, but 95% claimed to do so in the phone survey.

In the study, released at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, one-quarter of those polled say they wash their hands more frequently to combat illnesses such as SARS or the noroviruses that have caused illnesses on cruise ships.

Germs can spread from one person to another by direct contact with contaminated hands or by touching soiled surfaces, says Judy Daly, director of the microbiology lab at Primary Children's Medical Center at the University of Utah-Salt Lake City and secretary of the microbiology society. Hand washing is an easy, effective way to cut the spread of disease, she says.

That's a lesson people in Toronto took to heart. During the SARS outbreak, public health officials sent out daily warnings to encourage people to wash their hands frequently.

''It takes a SARS outbreak to get people to do what their mother's been telling them to do since they were kids,'' says Donald Low of the microbiology department at the University of Toronto and Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

If the study had been done before SARS, he says, the hand-washing rate in Toronto probably would have been the same as elsewhere, and he predicts that Canadians' heightened sense of cleanliness will fade over time.

''I'm sure if you redo the study in a year or two, we'll be right back'' in the range of other cities, he says. ''It's like after you get a speeding ticket, you're good for about 10 miles.''

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