Why McGill is dispensing with hand sanitizers

4211-POV-HAND-WASHBy Jim Nicell

Why is McGill discontinuing the installation of hand sanitizers in its buildings now that the H1N1 flu pandemic has eased?

We chose to install hand sanitizers in the first place because a flu pandemic had been declared by public health officials and there was a great deal of uncertainty about the virulence and severity of this never-before-seen virus.  In an instance such as this, all reasonable measures might be considered appropriate to try to put a stop to the spread of a virus that might affect many people severely.  So we took the added precaution of installing hand sanitizers.

In contrast, for the seasonal flu, we put measures in place every year, such as the annual vaccination program at McGill, to provide appropriate protection.

Furthermore, there is actually no conclusive evidence that hand sanitizers provide a degree of protection from the flu that is any greater than is provided through regular hand washing, proper sneezing/coughing etiquette and choosing to stay home when sick. Hand sanitizers should not be used as a replacement for proper hand washing. If hand-washing facilities are not available, hand sanitizers could be considered a reasonable alternative, but in order to be effective, you need the hand sanitizer to be where you are (i.e., in a public space, on public transit), which would suggest that portable personal supplies of hand sanitizers would be a reasonable option.

I should also note that the major route for exposure to flu viruses is not through skin-to-surface contact, but through suspended droplets in the air resulting from sneezing and coughing. Obviously, hand sanitizers do not create an effective barrier to this route of transmission.

Most important, public health officials have never recommended the use hand of sanitizers in public or institutional environments. Such environments are quite different from those of hospitals or clinics where health care workers are required to rapidly move between infected and immuno-suppressed individuals.

I would also note that the use of hand sanitizers is not sound from a sustainability point of view.  When we use these liquids, we are using distilled alcohol produced using significant quantities of energy and transported over great distances. In addition, we are adding to the volatile organic carbon content of our air, which reduces the indoor air quality.

Finally, the use of hand sanitizers will contribute to the public mindset that hand sanitizers are a better alternative to hand washing, which will lead to greater use of them in general. The overuse of these substances leads to potential problems such skin damage, eye damage, ingestion by children, etc.  We could reason that the risks associated with such effects could possibly be acceptable, if the benefits of hand sanitizers were evident. But, in the absence of evidence, we must question whether it is a wise practice to use them.

Please note that there is no significant financial loss associated with the removal of these stations from the campus. The cost of their installation was minimal, but their cost of their operation is not. In the current budget climate, it is essential that we use our limited resources wisely. Therefore, in the absence of evidence to support the use of hand sanitizers as an effective strategy to minimize the transmission of disease, their continued use and replenishment would be a significant waste of scarce resources.  Of course, if these devices prove to be needed at a later date based on the advice of public health experts, we will certainly remobilize them.

Jim Nicell is Associate Vice-Principal (University Services)