Hand Washing Double Bonus

Hand washing does something cool that I bet most parents never think about. Most parents do know that hand washing before eating can greatly reduce the risk of bacterial and viral infections and is a cost-effective way to keep your family healthier during these winter months. Hand washing can save your family tissue-strewn days dealing with runny noses or tummy-ache days dealing with with diarrhea. It can also help prevent pinworms, one of the most common parasitic infections in kids. But hand washing isn’t just for reducing cooties and germs. It’s an important step in protecting your child from toxic chemicals in the environment.

A recent study of chemical flame retardants known as PBDEs illuminated an important route of exposure in kids: dust to hand to mouth. PBDEs are known to disrupt hormones in people and other animals. These chemicals have been added to many household items – especially those made from petroleum products that would otherwise be very flammable. They are found in carpets, computers, and the foam in chairs, beds, and other furniture. The PBDEs are gradually released over time, where they end up in house dust. How do they get into kids?

The chemicals stick to their hands with dust or with direct contact. They get into their bodies when their hands come to their mouths when eating, especially with finger foods. Children average 10-fold higher estimated exposure than adults. Clean hands before eating offers the invisible bonus of lowering exposure to PBDEs and other chemical pollutants. House dust and germs may be worse in the winter. Click here to read about arsenic and the importance of spring and summer hand washing.

Stapleton, HM, SM Kelley, JG Allen, MD McClean and TF Webster. Measurement of polybrominated diphenyl ethers on hand wipes: Estimating exposure from hand-to-mouth contact. Environmental Science and Technology. 2008; 42(9):3329-3334.

Published on: February 17, 2008
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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