October 15

Global Handwashing Day


Your overprotective mother used to warn against lip balm, inventing scenarios where continued use somehow disrupted your body’s natural ability to defend against dryness.  Someday you’d be unable to function without smearing fragrant wax onto your mouth.  The wax would fill in larger and larger cracks, and eventually your lips would fall off.

She made a similar argument against hand sanitizers.  In this case, her theories gained support from a handful of Chicken Little scientific studies.  Antibacterial gels were supposed to be the most dangerous:  over time, the troclosan or triclocarban ingredients would kill good bacteria as well as bad, weakening your immune system.  The ingredients (so the argument went) would also contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

Next step?  The end of the world, of course.

Even alcohol-based sanitizers were dangerous.  Because, alcohol.  That’s an addictive substance, Mom reminded you.  Some kids were drinking it, and even if you weren’t, it was on your hands and seeped through skin, or you rubbed your eyes with “sanitized” fingers, brushed the back of your hand against your mouth.

And she circled back to the lip balm, with hand sanitizer reacting with the wax moisturizer, and somehow you’ve smeared all the features off your face, dry lips and runny nose and blinking eyes on the back of your hand.

Her warnings were ridiculous, and you rolled your eyes like most teenagers would.  And, like most teenagers, you did what you wanted.

If Mom were still around, you’d admit to her that she’d been right.

Not about everything, of course.  Her cause-and-effect scenarios and pseudoscientific musings weren’t quite on target.  But the essence of her message ended up being on target.

Regular soap and water was the answer to preventing spread of disease.  That was the message people reinforced on Global Handwashing Day.  But the modern world also emphasized convenience, and sanitizer gel was quicker to apply than soap lather and running water.

So why not treat Global Handwashing Day as Hand Sanitizer Day?  A charity group distributed free, generic hand-sanitizer bottles around the world, to raise awareness about convenient cleanliness.  The product was free, and each portable bottle came with a tamper-proof foil seal beneath the lid.

Factory-sealed, and a generic product, so nobody seemed bothered by the odd fragrance.  An almond scent, fine, but with an undertone of sulfur and spoiled milk.  People rubbed it on their hands, touched their hands to their mouths and eyes.

The disease didn’t take effect right away, which allowed it to spread worldwide.  Some accidental or intentionally-sabotaged virus slowly weakened the upper layers of skin.  At first, it felt like splinters beneath the dermis, then shards of glass, and eventually the skin tore away — exposing raw tissues beneath to airborne disease.

You were saved, since you bought your own hand sanitizer and preferred brand-name products to generics.

Ironically, your mother neglected her own advice, and succumbed to the free, widely-distributed gel.  You visited her in the city’s overflowing hospital — most floors given over to people without hands or faces, in bubble tents designed to protect them from outside contamination.  In an all-too-common outcome, medical efforts were too late to save her.

Your lips feel parched.  Your eyes are dry.  Your hand feels sticky and covered with grime.

You do nothing about it.