Here is something everybody can agree on: America has a hand washing problem. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Michigan found that only about 1 in 20 Americans properly wash their hands. That’s just 5 percent of more than 3,700 people the group observed in public restrooms throughout the duration of the study. The findings were published in the “Journal of Environmental Health,” in April.

“These finding were surprising to us because past research suggested that proper hand washing is occurring at a much higher rate,” says Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor of hospitality business and the study’s lead investigator. “That was horrifying to me.”

A comparable study by Urine Feces Everywhere, a cooperative of researchers, writers and healthcare professionals, reported hand washing rates as high as 97 percent in their study of restroom patrons in several national ballparks. The CDC points to general adherence rates at about 40 percent for healthcare workers — which is still significantly higher than the rates found by the University of Michigan.

Borchgrevink says the wide gap in results comes from the study’s adherence to counting proper hand washing behaviors, rather than anyone who “is over by the sink.”

According to the CDC, it takes about 15 to 20 seconds (or “Happy Birthday” sung twice) of vigorous hand washing to effectively remove bacterial loads from the fingers, palms and dorsum.

In Borchgrevink’s study, even those patrons who did wash their hands didn’t do so for the recommended length of time. The average visitor washed their hands for six seconds, the study says.

“I saw the compliance rates in the other studies, and I was a little skeptical,” he says. “Their rates didn’t match my own experience when I use restrooms. I think people are just not aware of the official recommendations. Spending 15 seconds may save you a few days,” of being sick. 

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