CHICAGO - There's nothing like fear of catching a dangerous infectious illness, it seems, to make people do the right thing after using the bathroom.
A survey of hand-washing habits in airport restrooms found that folks were exquisitely fastidious this summer in Toronto, which had just endured a SARS outbreak. Elsewhere in North America, though, people were just as slovenly as ever.
The survey, released Monday, is the third conducted by the American Society of Microbiology, which has long campaigned - with little apparent effect - for people to follow common-sense habits of cleanliness to prevent the spread of disease.
The only bright spot this time was Toronto, where health officials harangued the public for months last spring to wash frequently to help stop the spread of SARS.
"If this study had been done pre-SARS, we would not have been different than any other city. But it is nice to look so squeaky clean," said Dr. Donald Low, microbiology chief at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
Overall, the survey found that people washed after using airport toilets 78 percent of the time. However, the society said that if Toronto were taken out of the totals, this year's figure would be about the same as in 2000 and 1996, when surveys found about two-thirds of people washing.
"Unfortunately overall, we are unhappy to say we have not seen a statistically significant change," said Judy Daly, the society's secretary.
The study, done by the firm Wirthlin Worldwide in August, observed 7,541 people in public washrooms at airports in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Miami and Toronto. The researchers pretended to brush their hair or put on makeup while watching and recording fellow travelers' bathroom habits.
Among the results:
Women are cleaner than men. Overall, 83 percent of women washed up, compared with 74 percent of men.
For reasons no one could explain, the least scrupulous were women at the San Francisco airport. Just 59 percent washed.
The dirtiest men were at Chicago's O'Hare and New York's Kennedy. Just over 60 percent washed.
So why do people so often skip washing? "Busy lives," said Daly. "It just doesn't cross people's minds."
Daly, head of microbiology labs at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, said the society hopes to drive home the clean hands message with a new Web site, www.washup.org There, people will learn the society's recipe for hand hygiene: Rub hands together for 10 to 15 seconds using soap and warm, running water.
Hand washing prevents the spread of a variety of germs that cause common illnesses. These include the various cold viruses as well as the Norwalk viruses, which have triggered bouts of intestinal illness on cruise ships.
The society also sponsored a telephone survey of 1,000 Americans about their washing habits. The results suggest people clearly know what they should be doing, even if they don't do it. When asked if they washed after using public restrooms, 95 percent swore they always did.