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Tear down that restroom door!

12/12/2012

Back in June of 2007, when then U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, of Idaho, took his infamous wide stance in that Minneapolis airport men’s restroom, much of the discussion centered on whether he was a closeted homosexual looking for surreptitious action.

For those who don’t remember the story, an undercover officer said Craig had tapped his foot and signaled he wanted something a little more intimate than a helping hand reaching under the stall with emergency toilet paper. (A foot tap in a men’s room is said to be a signal to other nearby homosexuals that you’re looking for one-on-one relations.)

But, as that story broke and stayed in the headlines for the better part of a week, I had another thought: Why on Earth would anyone, for any reason, spend more than one-ten-thousandth of a second longer than he or she requires in a public restroom for personal export purposes? Get in. Get out. These are terrifically disgusting places.

The worst thing about public restrooms — the thing I fear far more than even dealing with a Larry Craig — is the dreaded door handle on the way out, the one you know has been grabbed and pulled and yanked and jarred by thousands of people who didn’t bother to wash their hands. Which makes clutching the handle with an unprotected hand something akin to what Craig allegedly was looking for himself that fateful day.            

Many people wrap their hands in paper towels as they pull open the restroom doors, which is a problem in the increasing number of places that now rely only on the hand dryer. This proliferation of driers is a crime. Not in the law-and-order sense. But a crime against health and decency.            

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And I have an authoritative ally in this viewpoint — which makes me sane and sanitary, not an obsessive-compulsive like Howard Hughes, whom if you believe the Leonardo DiCaprio movie portrayal, would wait in men’s rooms by the door until someone else entered so he didn’t have to touch the nasty handles. I sympathized with that scene.             

Is this crazy?              

As it turns out, no.             

Rodney Lee Thompson, a hospital epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., takes a dim and scientific view of public-restroom door handles in hotels, restaurants and other venues that leave us with nothing but the hand dryer to protect ourselves.              

“Remember that some people don’t wash their hands at all,” Thompson tells The Wall Street Journal. “So when you turn off the faucet, you contaminate your hands again; then you grab the door handle, and you’re picking up whatever germs were left behind.”             

Thompson proposes a solution more public places should adopt. In fact, it should be a law in Iowa. Or at least a building code or a regulation. Something.           

“I personally think that public bathroom doors should open out so you can push them with your thigh,” Thompson said in a Journal piece published last week. “Or they should not have a door at all, like airports.”             

I would go further and require all sink faucets in public restrooms to be automatic so one doesn’t have to use the same knob touched before washing to turn off the water. Having to use those knobs before and after soaping and rinsing just flat-out doesn’t make sense. Do you chug a can of soda after brushing your teeth at night?            

As for the paper-towel vs. hand-blower debate, the Mayo Clinic published an article in June looking at every known hand-washing study done since 1970.              

The Mayo Clinic’s conclusion: “Paper towels are superior to driers. They’re more efficient. They don’t splatter germs, they don’t dry [out] our hands and most people prefer them.”              

Environmental concerns are counter-intuitive here as well, The Journal reports. It takes more energy to operate the blow drier than to make a paper towel.           

The best situation is just not having to deal with the door in a public restroom.            

So, Mr. Public Building Owner, tear down that restroom door!

• • •

A point of clarification on, well, points, specifically the difference between percentage points and percentage differences. In a Political Mercury column last week, I reported that President Barack Obama carried 75 percent of the vote of non-religious people in Iowa, compared to 22 percent from that demographic for Mitt Romney, according to exit polling information discussed by West Des Moines pollster J. Ann Selzer. Those numbers are correct. But the comparison of 75 percent to 22 percent is 53 points (not 53 percent, as I reported). It’s more than a 3-to-1 margin (300 percent). Had I used my math terms correctly, the case I was making actually would have been far stronger than it was. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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