One of the largest problems faced by universities across the United States has been preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Wesleyan is no exception to this, and this year we have seen diseases like Coxsackievirus (Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease), Influenza, and the common cold. Some students have refered to these diseases as “WesPlagues.”
Globally, the CDC estimated that only 19 percent of the population washes their hands after using the restroom. This is a problem, as a single gram of human feces—which is about the weight of a paper clip—contains about one trillion germs that can enter the body through fecal-oral transmission. Washing your hands also prevents others from getting diseases; experts estimate that handwashing could protect about one out of every three young children who get sick with diarrhea and almost one out of five young children with respiratory infections.
But it is not enough to just clean your hands—it must be done properly in order to be effective.
“When washing hands with soap and water, wet hands first with water, apply an amount of product recommended by the manufacturer to hands, and rub hands together vigorously for at least 15 seconds, covering all surfaces of the hands and fingers,” recommends the CDC for best results. “Rinse hands with water and dry thoroughly with a disposable towel.”
It is proven that washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the quantity of microbes.
Though the CDC recommends paper towels, some public restrooms have air dryers instead. Paper towels are better at removing microbes from hands because they provide friction. In contrast, air dryers often are not warm enough to kill germs and frequently disperse them into the air. Also, since hands do not always dry completely when using an air dryer, people usually wipe excess water on their pants or fling it into the air, which produces a greater risk factor for the spread of diseases.
Dorm restrooms at the University have neither paper towels nor air dryers. Some students wonder if this is to blame for the continuing problem of disease spread.
“I feel pretty split because, on one hand, it is reducing paper consumption for the school, but on the other hand, when people wash their hands, they do not have a place to dry them,” Lilley Gallagher ’22 said. “I think this is a problem for containing germs because people touch the door handle and other things in the bathroom.”
Mia Sakamoto, who is also a first year, feels similarly.
“I think the intentions of not using paper towel was good for environmental sustainability,” Mia said. “But it might be contributing to the disease spreading at Wesleyan. But personally, I don’t have a problem with the lack of paper towels.”
The benefits in the form of disease prevention brought by paper towels could potentially outweigh their environmental impact. This is something worth considering when deciding whether or not to move away from paper towel usage, as a reduced carbon footprint is often cited as justification for switching to air dryers or for eliminating paper towels completely.
Some wonder if hand sanitizer is a viable alternative for handwashing.
“Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs,” the CDC says. This is especially true when hands are visibly greasy or dirty. Hand sanitizer must also contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be fully effective.
In order to prevent future WesPlagues, it is necessary that students know the importance of proper hand washing. It is also crucial that the University take appropriate steps for disease prevention, like supplying paper towels rather than hand dryers or nothing at all to avoid future outbreaks. Reinstating paper towels in bathrooms will be beneficial for the health of all students.
Hudson Dore is a member of the class 2022 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isabel Armour-Garb is a member of the class of 2022 and can be reached at email@example.com.