Effectiveness of hand sanitizers in question

Story and photo by Samantha Esquivel

Hand-sanitizing dispensers that spit out foam gel seem to be everywhere at Pima Community College.

PCC spent about $50,000 last year to install and maintain 575 alcohol-free gel dispensers in lobbies, hallways and classrooms throughout the district.

Annual maintenance costs for the sanitizer stations total $6,000 per year, according to
Assistant Vice Chancellor for Marketing Rachelle Howell.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the hand sanitizers to minimize exposure to seasonal flu and the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, Howell said.

However, new research says squirting on alcohol-based hand sanitizer doesn’t significantly decrease how often someone is infected with a cold or flu.

The University of Virginia study was sponsored by the Dial Corp., which markets a hand sanitizer. Results were announced in September during the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Boston.

The findings surprised research team leader Dr. Ronald Turner, a professor of pediatrics. “We all thought if you used hand disinfectants, it would have an impact,” he told reporters.

The findings suggest that influenza and cold viruses might be transmitted by air, not hand contact. In other words, sneezes and coughs are the culprits.

In the experiment, Turner used alcohol-based disinfectants that kill viruses for up to four hours after application.

Students who avidly used the sanitizer had 42 rhinovirus infections per 100 volunteers, while students who did not use it reported 51 rhinovirus infections per 100.

Twelve of 100 students who used sanitizer caught the flu, compared with 15 per 100 who didn’t take special precautions.

Most Pima students surveyed were surprised to hear that hand sanitizers may not play a significant role in preventing illness. Ironically, however, many said they ignore the hand sanitizing machines.

“Honestly, the dispensers blend into the walls,” Caryn Paye said. “I don’t really use them.”

Others feel it doesn’t hurt to have the dispensers around.

“The dispensers should be left; they have to be somewhat effective,” Ricky Hull said. “At least it smells good, and leaves you feeling like you have killed germs on your hands.”

The Centers for Disease Control still recommends hand washing as a way to keep from getting sick and spreading illnesses.

Howell said public awareness was one of the best tools Pima used to fight the spread of flu during the 2009 H1N1 scare. In addition to installing hand sanitizer dispensers, the college created posters and brochures filled with tips.

“It was important that people knew what they should do to increase their chances of staying healthy and avoiding the flu,” she said.

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