As a former network news producer, there were times I felt like I lived in airports. I’m sure Fox News host Pete Hegseth also spends a lot of time in airports. So when he announced on Fox and Friends that he hasn’t washed his hands in 10 years, because “germs are not a real thing,” I immediately recalled a recent report tracking the dirtiest part of an airport. It’s not where you might expect.
The highest concentration of germs in an airport is not the restrooms. It’s where we place our hand luggage. Hand being the operative term here, because it’s those plastic security bins that virtually everyone handles, which have the highest concentration of germs. We can take all the vitamins we want, or “inoculate” oneself as Hegseth claims he does. (Though he said he “can’t see” germs, “therefore they’re not real,” so I’m confused how he inoculates himself with something he says doesn’t exist.)
Still, I’m not confused about handwashing. It is in fact the single most effective way to stay healthy. Unfortunately, Mr. Hegseth is not alone in his habits. Less than 40 percent of men and only about 60 percent of women bother to wash their hands after using the toilet.
Not washing hands means very real germs leave the loo with us, landing on credit cards, cell phones, computer keyboards, grocery carts, doorknobs, those airport security bins, and even wind up in our wallets. It turns out U.S. currency is a lovely cotton-linen blend, offering a comfortable environment for germs to settle in, offering a whole new definition of dirty money.
A 2017 study found hundreds of species of microorganisms on U.S. dollar bills. The most common ones caused acne. Plenty were harmless. But researchers also found microbes from mouths, vaginal bacteria, DNA from pets, and viruses. A 2002 study found that 94 percent of dollar bills tested by researchers had pathogens on them, including fecal matter. Traces of cocaine have also been found on 80 percent of dollar bills. A theory is that ATMs distribute dollars handled by dealers and users.
No, you won’t get high nor can you literally launder your money. Fortunately, money isn’t good at transmitting most disease. It doesn’t maintain the right temperature and moisture for growth, though some viruses and bacteria can live on most surfaces for about 48 hours, and some flu viruses can live on a dollar bill for 10 days and longer.
I fear national personalities like Pete Hegseth, whether joking or not, take for granted just how fortunate we are to be able to effectively wash our hands with soap and clean water. Consider that the Centers for Disease Control says on average American healthcare providers wash their hands less than half of the time they should. Maybe Mr. Hegseth is okay with that. I’m not and I bet the one in 25 hospital patients in the U.S. that contracts a hospital-acquired infection are not either.
We have it good here in the U.S. Only 44 percent of health centers and hospitals in lower income countries have soap and water, resulting in one-in-six patients contracting an illness. Around the world 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation and 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases, especially vulnerable are children under five, according to the World Water Council.
Cristian is a little boy I never knew, but I often share his story because Cristian had what’s called a neglected tropical disease, or NTD. NTDs are bacteria and parasites that spread through unsafe water, sanitation and poor hygiene, so they tend to attack the poorest of the poor. 1.4 billion people get sick; 500 million are children. But for Cristian, the news was good because he was treatable with just a steady routine of hand and face washing.
Yet despite following doctor’s orders, his eye infection grew into a tumor that covered part of his face. He suffered for two years and when he was 11-years-old, he died of complications from a completely preventable and treatable disease, because in the impoverished outskirts of the capitol city of Honduras where he lived, bacteria is very real.
This combination of adequate and safe water, sanitation and hygiene in our country has virtually eliminated epidemics diseases that once plagued us — like typhoid and cholera. But fecal matter will still cause dysentery, shigella, salmonella, rotavirus, E. coli, hepatitis A and viral meningitis. These diseases, preventable with handwashing, are dangerous and cost tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity annually.
Our health really is in our hands.
I’m not even remotely a “germphobe.” But I have to admit, given his irresponsible attitude toward public health, if I were to meet Mr. Hegseth, I’m just not so sure that I’d shake his hand.
Susan Barnett, a former Emmy-nominated network news investigative producer, is founder of Faiths for Safe Water, a nonprofit group seeking to unite the faith voice around the shared symbol of water. She also leads communications for Global Water 2020, which seeks to accelerate progress toward solvable challenges of global water security.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.