Oregon cleans up on poker, and other matters involving hands

By JAYSON JACOBY, Baker City Herald December 12, 2008 03:06 pm

I’ve been aware for some years that the government harbors what seems to me an unhealthy fascination with my life.

And with yours.

(I mention this only to avoid implying that there’s anything special about my life that has attracted the government’s attention. There isn’t. My exploits are, in fact, rather routine.)

Still, I was taken aback to learn that the government’s curiosity about our habits extends even to the proper care of our hands.

This has got me a little worried.

I haven’t analyzed my lathering technique in a while, for instance.

And I’m pretty sure I don’t scrub with anything like the violence necessary to dislodge every germ.

I apologize for the late notice but in case you didn’t get the word, this is Hand Washing Awareness Week.

And not just in Oregon, although my information comes from the state’s Department of Human Services.

The procrastination, however, is entirely my own.

The news release in which Gov. Ted Kulongoski proclaims hand washing awareness week arrived in my e-mail folder on Dec. 5, which was two days before the event started.

Yet only now, on the penultimate day, have I gotten around to writing about it.

Hand-washing week, according to my informants, is a nationwide event, and has been since 1999. Which is fortunate, because I doubt Kulongoski’s clout on matters related to hand hygiene crosses Oregon’s borders.

I can’t fault the government, state or federal, for encouraging people to wash their hands.

I don’t want to pause at a drinking fountain, seeking only to slake my thirst, and come away with some bug that transforms my gastrointestinal tract into the equivalent of a high school chemistry experiment botched by two kids who were trying to make nitroglycerine.

Yet I feel a trifle unsettled whenever it seems like the government is trying to replace my mom.

Now that the state has insinuated itself into the upkeep of my hands, the day might not be too distant when the governor tells me to eat my vegetables and stop trying to run over my sister with my bicycle and please don’t scrape the stuff off a dozen sparklers and then put a match to the pile of incendiary gray grit.

All of which, of course, is sound advice.

But it seems to me that the government inevitably straddles the line between silly and absurd when it tries to explain something as simple as hand-washing.

The news release, for instance, quotes Eric Pippert, whose job title, speaking of medical advice, could induce hyperventilation: he’s manager of the Oregon Department of Human Service’s Public Health Division’s Foodborne Illness Prevention Program.

If the state really wants to prevent something it ought to look into its abuse of apostrophes.

Anyway, Pippert says that to banish bacteria “you have to make a lather and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds.”

Unfortunately, he doesn’t elaborate.

I understand the lather part, but what I want to know is why 20 seconds is the crucial threshold.

Nor is there any evidence that the state, which obviously put a lot of thought into the issue, even realizes the significant differences among various soaps.

If 20 seconds of rubbing with Dove’s gentle suds will do the job, then I’ll bet you could get the same results in 15 seconds with an abrasive bar of Lava.

They put real rock in that stuff.

You could strip the paint off an El Camino with it.

Pippert goes on to explain how you can tell when the vital 20-second mark has elapsed.

“If you want to time yourself,” the news release recommends, “20 seconds is about how long it takes to sing the ‘Happy Birthday’ song twice.”

The state should have deleted that sentence.

The goal, after all, is to entice people to wash their hands frequently.

This might be a personal peccadillo, but if I walk into a public restroom and there’s a guy standing at the sink mumbling “happy birthday” to himself, I’m less likely, not more, to give my hands a good going over.

The way my parents handled the question of hand-washing duration was better, I think.

They told me to keep scrubbing until they said I could stop.

Which is an admirably succinct tactic, and one versatile enough to take care of tooth-brushing as well.

No lyrics to remember, either.

With 3.8 million people in Oregon to look after, and close to twice that many hands, I suppose it’s unreasonable for me to expect that the government will make sure nobody stops scrubbing prematurely.

But then again the state did recently come up with thousands of dollars for TV ads designed to entice people to put their money into Oregon Lottery video poker and slot machines.

This is not a valid comparison, of course.

Washing your hands can keep you healthy, sure.

But the Lottery fetches a billion bucks a year, which is really cleaning up.

Here’s my humble suggestion: Incorporate the hand-washing tips in the pro-gambling ads.

That’s the sort of creative thinking we expect from our public servants. 

Besides, the two-pronged strategy ought to reap real dividends.

Consider this: In 2006, Oregon’s video poker and slot machines brought in $728.8 million.

Just imagine how many hands had to grab those machines to rack up that kind of money.

I’ll bet some of those hands hadn’t had their full 20 seconds recently.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.