A healthy obsession?

Comment is free: Hygiene obsession

Katherine Ashenburg (author of a forthcoming book, Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing) on American toilets (sorry, bathrooms) and the various methods deployed to prevent people getting their hands soiled with germs - among them a device which sprays disinfectant on the doorknob and devices which spare the users the necessity of touching things like the taps and even the paper dispensers. As one who makes fairly frequent use of these things in London, I have to say that some of them are useful and some are plain stupid.

A month ago I made a post about stupid technology, including the twelve-step programme for setting the alarm on my new clock radio. Bathrooms are a focus for really stupid technology. Last week I had to make a visit to the “conveniences” at Waterloo station, which cost 20p (40 cents) a go. I discovered that the old lift-up mixer taps had been replaced by a new beam-activated tap. You know, you put your hands under the tap and it runs. Well, that’s the idea. In reality, it only runs if you put the palm or back of your hand under. If you put your fingers under, it stops. One of my favourite halal restaurants, Abu Zad in Shepherds’ Bush, has a similar device. Almost as bad are the “presta” taps which go off as soon, or almost as soon, as you release the tap - meaning that you cannot rub your hands together under the water. The reason for installing them is obvious - so that people cannot just turn them on and leave them to run, or worse, leave them on and deliberately block the sink. Why, though, cannot people set them properly so that you can run them for a few seconds, or get the vendor to set them?

The hand dryers at Waterloo are even more bizarre, apparently requiring you to put your hands into some narrow slit to activate the air. There is actually no shortage of types of hand dryer on the market, and a tiny number that actually work: the best known is the World Dryer by the Warner Howard company - the big white heavy one with the chunky round metal activator button. Virtually all the others don’t work. The air stream it issues is either lukewarm or too weak, or both, and if you put your hand under it for several seconds or half a minute, your hands will probably be just as wet as they were when you first started it. They are useless. Why do they exist? Do people test them before they spend money on them?

However, my biggest problem with toilets in general is plain bad design. When I wash my hands, I don’t want to rub them up against the fixtures and fittings or the side of the bowl, but most are actually too small for someone to get the palm of his (or perhaps her) hand in comfortably. The taps are sometimes so close to the bowl that you can’t wash bits of your hand properly at all (example: the wash taps at the Chicken Cottage in Tooting). Some plumbers set up the tap wrong, so that the hot water comes out first rather than the hot, so you have to choose between gushing water and boiling water. Then there are the pressure spray taps, which are another thing which just should not exist in a hand-washing basin; one often finds them putting out a spray which bounces off your hands onto your clothing (along with whatever you were trying to wash off) or an ineffective fine mist. The same question arises as with the weedy hand dryers: why do they exist? I have never seen one in anybody’s home, so why are they installed in public loos?

My final bugbear is the soap, specifically liquid soap. It doesn’t wash off. I have tried asking in various shops if they know of a liquid soap which washes off, just like normal soap, but none I’ve tried is as effective in washing off dirt as proper soap (important if you’ve been working in a dusty warehouse or handling goods which have been stored in one) and none of them wash off with a bit of water; they have to be rubbed off and then washed again. I do not want my hands moisturised when I just want to wash them; I can buy a moisturiser if that’s what I want. I hate the grimy deposit liquid soap leaves on my hands, and I can’t believe I am the only one, particularly given that liquid soap often includes glycerol, which is often derived from animal fat. I appreciate the need for soap which is not touched by everyone who passes by that bathroom, because you really don’t know what they are all carrying, but can nobody invent a liquid soap which is gone as soon as it has done its job?

People who know me know that I can be rather over-zealous about these things, but I am not the only Muslim (and I am sure there are others) I know of who does not like touching things one thinks might not be clean. I have even come across Muslims who will not sit on public seats because of others who do not clean themselves properly after using the bathroom (this is understandable but unjustified; touching something dry does not make anything dirty that was not dirty before and when something is not discernibly filthy or known to be contaminated, it is regarded as clean). The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people are at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to cleanliness, as one sometimes cannot help noticing, so while auto-spraying the doorknob periodically with disinfectant might be excessive, taking measures to save people from feeling that they have not quite left it all behind when they leave the bathroom is not.

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  • On cleanliness, a must-read is McClintock, A. (1994) ‘Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest’ (London: Routledge), which includes some fascinating discussions about the relationship between hygiene and colonialism and racism. Plus some colonial soap adverts that will make you cringe!

  • Old Pickler

    I wonder if our society isn’t a little obsessed with germs and cleanliness. (I’m not talking about religious cleansing rituals here, but everyday life.)

    Children, in particular, don’t play out so much and live in sterilised environments. It isn’t good for them.

    Recently I took a course of antibiotics for a bad toothache. They worked like a dream. My dentist asked if I’d taken antibiotics before, and I told him only once. He said that’s why. Kill bacteria and people’s immune system goes to pot.

  • Bizworldusa

    I wonder if our society isn’t a little obsessed with germs and cleanliness. Children, in particular, don’t play out so much and live in sterilised environments. It isn’t good for them……….

    Thank you Bizworldusa