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What “dangers of disease” do hot-air hand dryers prevent?

Dear Cecil:

Tell me, Cecil — what are the hazards of disease which may be transmitted by towel litter against which we are warned by the labels on hot-air hand dryers?

Hypochondriac, Washington, D.C.

Cecil replies:

The chief maladies prevented by the use of hot-air hand dryers are poverty and unemployment among the owners and employees of the World Dryer Corporation, which, incidentally, no longer adorns its product with the famous piece of literature to which you refer.

It seems that the references to disease and medical tests in that familiar ditty (“For your well being … we have installed electric hand dryers,” etc.) were inspired by a Public Health Service study done in 1953 by one Paul E. Walker, MD, whose purpose was to determine whether hot-air drying could reduce bacterial contamination on the hands and forearms of surgeons and other operating room personnel after their usual antiseptic scrubbing procedure. Counting the number of bacterial colonies left by the hot-air drying method and the usual sterile-towel method, Dr. Walker concluded that hot-air dryers were indeed superior, as well as cheaper. Though he did not specify the types of bacteria he counted, and despite the obvious fact that the requirements of operating-room sterility and common bathroom sanitation are worlds apart, his report evidently fell into the hands of a creative copywriter who went on to warn millions of Americans about the “dangers of disease that may be transmitted by cloth towels or paper towel litter.” This was a gargantuan leap of logic, in my humble opinion, but I suppose that’s the sort of thing copywriters get paid for.

Your chances of catching something from a cloth towel — or from “paper towel litter,” if you’re in the habit of rooting around in it and wiping it all over yourself — are so remote as to be practically negligible. If you were to contract something, it would most likely be some sort of bacterial skin infection like impetigo (which isn’t seen much anymore) or athlete’s foot (whose transmission is not very well understood). Of course, if a person with some monstrous infection just happened to precede you into the rest room, and just happened to dry his or her hands without bothering to wash them first, and thereby just happened to deposit a huge dollop of virulent pus on the very section of the towel that you just happened to use to dry the area around a gaping wound that you just happened to have, you would probably keel over and croak in about 12 seconds flat, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cecil Adams

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