A preliminary study of commuters found that the hands of people in northern UK were up to three times dirtier than those in the south, especially those of men, and overall, more than one in four commuters were found to have bacteria from faeces on their hands.

The findings were released to coincide with Global Handwashing Day on 15th October, and was carried out by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

The cleanest hands were on London men, of which only 6 per cent carried fecal bugs on their hands.

The investigators found that the further north they went, the more likely they were to encounter commuters with fecal bacteria on their hands, and especially in men.

However, gender contrasts were not consistent across cities. For example, in London, women were three times more likely to have dirty hands compared with men, and twice as likely in Cardiff.

For the study, researchers swabbed commuters’ hands at bus stops outside train stations in five UK cities: Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, and Newcastle.

The results showed that:

  • Commuters in Newcastle were up to 3 times more likely to have fecal bacteria on their hands than their counterparts in London (44 per cent of those swabbed compared to 13 per cent respectively).
  • Commuters in Birmingham and Cardiff were equally as likely to have dirty hands (23 and 24 per cent respectively had fecal bacteria on their hands).
  • In Liverpool, commuters also scored high in the dirty hands stakes, with 34 per cent of those swabbed having fecal bacteria on their hands.
  • Men were more likely to have dirty hands compared to women in Newcastle and Liverpool (53 per cent of men as opposed to 30 per cent of women in Newcastle, and 36 per cent of men compared to 31 per cent of women in Liverpool).
  • But in the other three cities, it was women who had the dirtier hands: 29 per cent of women in Cardiff compared to 15 per cent men; 21 per cent of women in London compared with 6 per cent of men; and 26 per cent of women in Birmingham compared with 21 per cent of men.

The bacteria found on the dirty hands were all from the gut said the researchers and while they do not always cause disease, they show that hands have not been washed properly and thus increase the risk of passing on disease.

Dr Val Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Centre at the LSHTM, said she and her colleagues were shocked at how “many people had faecal bugs on their hands”.

“The figures were far higher than we had anticipated, and suggest that there is a real problem with people washing their hands in the UK”, said Curtis.

“If any of these people had been suffering from a diarrhoeal disease, the potential for it to be passed around would be greatly increased by their failure to wash their hands after going to the toilet,” she added.

An infectious diseases expert told the BBC that he was startled by the results and they should be “enough to make anyone reach for the soap”.

Professor Mike Catchpole, who is director of the Centre for Infections at the UK’s Health Protection Agency said that it was well known that hand washing was one of the most important ways of stopping infections from spreading among people, and those that cause diarrhoea and vomiting, colds and flu, in particular.

“People should always wash their hands after using the toilet, before eating or handling food, and after handling animals,” said Catchpole, adding also that all cuts and scratches should be covered with a waterproof dressing.

Global Handwashing Day is a public-private partnership that is promoting the importance of handwashing with soap to reduce diarrhoea in developing countries, and is bringing together governments and soap industry experts to organize large scale policy initiatives in more than 40 countries.

2008 is the UN International Year of Sanitation, and Global Handwashing Day is intended to reinforce the message about improved hygiene and promote a global culture of washing hands with soap, because while many people around the world wash their hands with water, few wash their hands with soap when it really matters.

The agencies behind Global Handwashing Day include, but are not limited to: the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank, UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USAID through the Hygiene Improvement Project (HIP), and private enterprises from the soap industry such as Procter and Gamble and Unilever.

Click here for Global Handwashing Day.

Source: LSHTM, Global Handwashing Day, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD.