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How many people use those ubiquitous hand sanitizers when told to?

November 25, 2009 |  5:16 pm

Sanitizer Hand sanitizer stations (and bottles) are everywhere these days. How many people actually use them?

John Trinkaus, a professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York, decided to take a look. In the summer of 2009, he stationed himself in a building adjoining a teaching hospital "in the suburbs of a large Northeastern city," one where about 80 physicians and other healthcare professionals and their staffs, in 30 different offices, ply their trade.

Right at the entrance, there was a prominent bottle of hand sanitizer with a sign telling people to cleanse their hands with it before proceeding into the building. Trinkaus watched as 500 people entered the building (some of them may have been duplicates of the same person). Of 108 wearing some kind of medical garb or a hospital ID badge, 3% used the sanitizer. Of 392 not thus identified as healthcare workers, 6% obeyed the instructions.

It's the kind of investigation right up Trinkaus' alley: He makes a specialty of watching people and cataloging their mundane, day-to-day habits. As I noted in a 2003 article about his work:

"Over a period of decades, the former associate dean of business at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, published more than 80 scholarly articles on such matters as the attitude of people toward Brussels sprouts, the colors folks favor in sport shoes, whether they wear the peak of baseball caps to the fore or rear and how many people stop at stop signs or adhere to the item limits in supermarket express checkout lanes. ('It's getting worse,' he commented darkly.)"

Trinkaus' hand sanitizer study is published in the Annals of Improbable Research, a humorous science magazine. You can read the article online here. The magazine also runs the famous Ig Nobel science awards each year, a parody of the formal, serious Nobels. (Trinkaus won an Ig Nobel award in 2003.)

Here's an article about the 2009 Ig Nobel ceremony, which featured a local winner: Dr. Donald L. Unger, 83, a Thousand Oaks allergist, who won his prize for cracking the knuckles of one hand, but not the other, for more than six decades, to see if it were true that it would raise the risk of arthritis.

Tune in Nov. 27 to NPR's Science Friday to hear a condensed version of that 2009 Ig Nobel ceremony.

-- Rosie Mestel

Photo credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times