It started with my sister posting a link on her Facebook page to this Slate article by Darshak Sanhavi. Amy's a doctor so when it has to do with health, I pay attention. Then over the course of the past few days it seems like everywhere I turn on the internet, I run into this article. By now it's been forwarded to me by no fewer than 5 people.
I've been wanting to avoid it, and avoid writing about it in particular, because to do so requires a confession that may be among the worst one can make in this day and age. But the universe clearly wants me to share this, so I'll start with the admission of the ultimate preschool teacher sin: I don't think frequent hand washing does squat to protect children from anything.
Now before you jump down my throat, the children and adults of Woodland Park have a number of hand washing hurdles to overcome every day, including upon arrival and anytime we're around food, toilets, or snotty hands. We spend time at the beginning of the year making sure the children know how to properly wash up and we're forever sending or escorting (depending on their age) kids to the bathroom to use soap and running water. The adults are expected to wash their hands too, although we accept the hand sanitizer version, and have several bottles of the stuff around the room for their use. We do our best to follow hand washing protocol, but that has never stopped me from feeling like it was a kind of kabuki performance designed to pay homage to the "science" of disease transmission.
If you've spent any time at all around young children, you know that any hand washing designed to prevent the spread of illness is only valid until that child next touches her or his nose or mouth, which according to the FDA is on average once every three minutes, "and both adults and children come in contact with as many as 30 different objects every minute." I'll bet that number is higher in a preschool classroom like ours with a play-based, hands-on curriculum.
In fairness, the Slate article, entitled "How To Sell Germ Warfare," is focused on the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and other anti-bacterial products and how marketers are hyping germ fears in the interest of profits, but much of the data it presents can be extrapolated to hand washing in general. While hand washing and sanitizers do kill those germs in laboratories, the author's point is that this doesn't appear to be happening in the real world. He sites studies from doctors, Ivy League schools, the FDA, the CDC, and the Public Health Agency of Canada that have repeatedly shown that vigorous hand washing has no measurable impact on the spread of respiratory infections beyond the confines of a controlled experiment. (And, in fact, there is some research out there that indicates that the use of hand sanitizers actually increases the chance of a person getting sick because it kills "good" germs along with the "bad," and gives people a false sense of "immunity.")
As I've written before, I consider part of the "mission" of preschool education to be preparing our immune systems, as well as our minds, for the rigors of kindergarten, and it appears that all this focus on hand washing really isn't getting in the way of that. Yay?
We'll keep washing our hands, of course, because that's the official drill expected of us (and, frankly, because I've seen some of the things preschoolers do with their hands, and there is the simple "yuck factor" to consider). But honestly, come on, look at what we do with our hands in the world. We know it's mostly just for show.