When Kelly Botoulas perused a hygiene survey of Horry-Georgetown Technical College students, the results confirmed her suspicions.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” she said. “I use the public restrooms at school.”
What Botoulas and other student researchers found after surveying more than 500 people (397 students, 115 employees) was that hand washing needs to become a priority on the campus.
“We discovered that most people at Tech don’t wash their hands as often as they should,” said Leila Rogers, a sociology professor who assisted students with the project. “They’re more likely to wipe down shopping carts at Wal-Mart and their gym equipment than they are to wash their hands at school.”
Despite the, well, unpleasant discovery, students used the survey to persuade school officials to install hand-sanitizing stations this month. The sanitizers are now at the main entrances of buildings on the three HGTC campuses.
Students also launched a PR campaign called “Spread the Word, Not the Germ,” to promote campus hygiene.
“We just think of them as germs,” said Botoulas, a 42-year-old who received her associate’s degree in health science last week and will enter the school’s nursing program in the fall. “But they do so much. They’re capable of so much and we need to respect them more.”
The hygiene survey emerged from research done by Alpha Nu Sigma, the college’s chapter of the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
Every year, this group of students develops a project aimed at addressing a campus concern. The initiative is tied to a theme and last summer the chapter’s members selected health and medicine.
They began brainstorming in June and eventually honed in on antibiotic resistance. The discussions led to concerns about hand-washing and the spread of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a durable bacteria resistant to many antibiotics. Many MRSA infections are on the skin. But the most potent — and most dangerous — attack the bloodstream.
As HGTC students and faculty learned about the bacteria, they developed a survey that asked, not just about hand-washing habits, but about how often respondents pumped gasoline, went to the gym and handled money.
“A lot of people don’t understand that MRSA lives on everything,” Rogers said. “It can live for days just sitting on a table top.”
While conducing their research, students also noticed the only hand-sanitizing stations on campus were in the bathrooms.
“It didn’t make much sense to have hand sanitizers in the restrooms where you should be washing your hands to begin with,” Rogers said. “The sanitizers that were in the restrooms were not alcohol based. They were just that foam stuff. Well, all the research indicated washing your hands is the No. 1 prevention, but if you can’t wash at least use alcohol-based sanitizers.”
Rogers said the group wanted more hand-sanitizing stations on campus for convenience. The survey showed more than 90 percent of students and employees would use the sanitizers if they were available in common areas.
“Often times, you don’t have time to run to the restroom,” she said. “But you can just splash the sanitizer on your way to class, and when you go in the door and you leave that class, at least your hands are clean and you’re not spreading MRSA.”
Initially, the students thought administrators might not understand the project or be skeptical about their proposal. They were wrong. Along with purchasing and installing the new hand sanitizers, the school replaced the ones in the bathrooms with alcohol-based cleansers.
“They were incredibly supportive,” Botoulas said. “I expected to have to really kind of justify it and explain the science behind it and maybe get some more professors involved. ... It was a great feeling to know that we could do something that makes our school even better and even safer for everybody.”
The project also won Alpha Nu Sigma an award at Phi Theta Kappa’s convention in San Antonio, Texas.
Although she’s pleased with the new sanitizers, Botoulas insists these are simply backups. Plain old soap and water, she said, should still be students’ primary method of staying clean.
“At the end of the day, the best way to avoid antibiotic resistance is to not have to take antibiotics,” she said. “And the best way to do that is to wash your damn hands.”
Contact CHARLES D. PERRY at 626-0218 or on Twitter @TSN_CharlesPerr.