sealPurdue News

November 15, 1996

Professor's research shows value of washing hands

HAMMOND, Ind. -- Ever since mom first demanded it, washing our hands has seemed to be the right thing to do.

Now, according to a Purdue University Calumet professor's research, handwashing is the right thing for youngsters to do because it helps keep them healthy.

A 1994-95 study during the traditional cold and flu season months of January through March showed fewer colds in a test group of 3- to 5-year-olds using proper and frequent handwashing techniques than within a control group of similarly aged youngsters. Joann Niffenegger conducted the study at Purdue Calumet's Riley Child Center.

At the child center, 18.9 percent of the children and teachers caught colds, compared to 27.8 percent within the control group. Each group comprised 30 children and 10 teachers.

Both groups were from centers in compliance with state licensing regulations. However, the handwashing curriculum that the Purdue Calumet center implemented went beyond state regulations. Once the study ended, Niffenegger, assistant professor of early child development, presented the results to the control group and gave the director the complete handwashing curriculum.

"We learned that it takes a while to change behavior," Niffenegger said, "but that eventually children understand the importance of handwashing and become very involved in doing it properly with the help of the adults around them."

That involvement has continued, and with good results, according to Tamra Bottomlee, director of the Purdue Calumet child center.

"We're seeing fewer infectious, contagious illnesses in the center," she said.

Besides healthier children, Purdue Calumet students who teach in the center -- it also serves as a laboratory setting for students majoring in early childhood development -- have benefited from the research project and the resulting practices that have been adopted.

"Our practicum students have been healthier, too," Niffenegger said. "They have had fewer absences."

Her project involved teaching youngsters -- with the help of the teachers at the Purdue Calumet center -- about germs, how they linger and how to get rid of them. The study was funded by a Purdue Research Foundation grant.

"We did a pretend germ experiment, using petroleum jelly and nutmeg," Niffenegger said. "The nutmeg served as germs. We asked the children to wash away the 'germs' with cold water. When the 'germs' remained, the children were taught the effectiveness of washing."

Other components of her program, she said, included washing hands upon arrival at the center; washing for 10 to 15 seconds, so as to make "lots of bubbles;" rinsing and drying hands thoroughly; and encouraging parents to follow the same practices at home.

To monitor the children's health, parents filled out weekly health assessments.

"From an educator's standpoint, I don't think caregivers know how to teach handwashing," Niffenegger said. "Just telling kids to do it isn't enough; it's an abstract notion."

Consequently, through her research, she has developed a handwashing curriculum and kits, used by children in the Purdue Calumet center.

"The only drawback of handwashing is that you get very dry hands," she said. "But we tell parents to use moisturizing lotion for their children."

Niffenegger holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Rio Grande (Ohio), a master's degree from Murray State (Ky.) University and a doctorate from Southern Illinois University.


Source: Joann Niffenegger, (219) 989-2219

Writer: Wes Lukoshus, (219) 989-2217; e-mail,

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