The Environmental Cost of Misinformation: Why the Recommendation to Use Elevated Temperatures for Handwashing Is Problematic

Int J Consum Stud. 2013 Jul 1;37(4):433-441. doi: 10.1111/ijcs.12012.


Multiple government and health organizations recommend the use of warm or hot water in publications designed to educate the public on best practices for washing one's hands. This is despite research suggesting that the use of an elevated water temperature does not improve handwashing efficacy, but can cause hand irritation. There is reason to believe that the perception that warm or hot water is more effective at cleaning one's hands is pervasive, and may be one factor that is driving up unnecessary energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. We examine handwashing practices and beliefs about water temperature using a survey of 510 adults in the United States. The survey included measures of handwashing frequency, duration, the proportion of time an elevated temperature was used, and beliefs about water temperature and handwashing efficacy. We also estimate the energy consumed and resultant carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2eq) in the U.S. due to the use of elevated temperatures during handwashing. Participants used an elevated temperature 64% of the time, causing 6.3 million metric tons (MMt) of CO2eq which is 0.1% of total annual emissions and 0.3% of commercial and residential sector emissions. Roughly 69% of the sample believed that elevated temperatures improve handwashing efficacy. Updating these beliefs could prevent 1 MMt of CO2eq annually, exceeding the total emissions from many industrial sources in the U.S. including the Lead and Zinc industries. In addition to causing skin irritation, the recommendation to use an elevated temperature during handwashing contributes to another major threat to public health-climate change. Health and consumer protection organizations should consider advocating for the use of a "comfortable" temperature rather than warm or hot water.