Bioethics Blogs

The Unbearable Rightness of Handwashing

by Nanette Elster, JD, MPH and Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

You may have seen at your doctor’s office a poster showing a climber scaling a sheer cliff. Purportedly a public service ad (PSA), the casual viewer would assume that the poster is warning against the dangers of climbing. In fact, the poster warns people about the danger of not using sunscreen. The ad cleverly upends our typical perception of risk (that climbing is dangerous) with a much more pedestrian but even greater risk (getting skin cancer from too much sun). Have we gotten to the point that we need a similarly provocative PSA telling us of the health benefits of washing hands?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Clean hands save lives.”  The World Health Organization (WHO), states that “Clean hands protect against infection.”   Maybe this recent poster by the CDC makes the message more impactful: “One trillion germs can live in one gram of poop. (That’s the weight of a paper clip)” Shouldn’t that be enough to convince anyone that restaurant workers should have clean hands if they are handling the food we eat?  Not according to Sen. Thom Tillis (R. N.C.) who was recently speaking about his opposition to too much government regulation.  He said:  “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom. The market will take care of that.”  Upon hearing this, one could mistakenly believe this was a story from the Onion.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.