Today, I`m going to dish some dirt on germs. The reality is that more of us (present company included, I guess) are spreading those nasty germs without even realizing it in our homes, workplaces, schools and, believe it or not, in our hospitals and medical offices. Most of this germ warfare is happening because we`re not washing our hands properly, if at all, when we most need to. And with the advent of the regular flu and H1N1 flu seasons, our battle is only going to get worse.

Recently, the news media gave us a wake-up call with the statistic that 70 percent of the adult population in the United States was doing its business in the washroom and not washing up afterward. Having come from a family of obsessive washers and creating a family with similar practices, I cringed when I read that statistic. Nevertheless, I was glad that the media finally brought this germ-filled practice into the open.

The plain truth is that hand-washing isn`t a luxury. It`s a necessity and each time a guy breezes by me in the washroom and doesn`t wash his hands, he`s exposing me to more germs from a whole host of places. Excuse my bluntness, but after that guy leaves, I touch the same door handle he has with my clean hands and I could inherit a family of germs. My only choice these days is to touch the door handle with a clean paper towel.

My wife has educated me that the situation in women`s rest rooms is not much better. That really surprised me, because I`ve always considered women to be beyond meticulous about those things. Not.

Because I`m substitute teaching, I`m more conscious than ever about washing my hands and keeping them constantly sanitized. I was really pleased to see that all the schools I`ve been in have large containers of hand-sanitizers and students use them all the time. I certainly do.

All teacher and student washrooms have pictorial instructions in English and Spanish, explaining that washing must be done with soap for at least 20 seconds. The instructions go on to say that while we dry our hands, we should leave the water running, but use a dry paper towel to turn off the water. And we should probably use another dry towel for the door handle. I have to confess that I don`t follow the instructions to the letter, but I come close.

These days it doesn`t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the companies manufacturing liquid hand soaps, hand-sanitizers and sanitary packets are probably the only ones unaffected by the economy. I have to believe that large institutions and consumers are squirting billions into these companies` coffers, but I can`t think of a more worthwhile kind of business.

Another area where hand-sanitizing is exploding is in supermarkets. Frankly, until I saw a woman spend 15 minutes cleaning the handle and interior of a cart where she was about to place her infant, I never thought about how many germs must live on those handles. Initially, I chuckled about all the effort this woman put into prepping the cart. Weeks later, the store placed a small kiosk with sanitary wipes right in front of the cart area.

And just this week, I started hearing commercials reminding us to ask health care professionals in hospitals and offices whether they washed their hands before examining us or loved ones. I can speak from the experience of being with my wife`s aunt in a Rhode Island hospital just two weeks before her death. Upon entering the room, I was instructed to sanitize my hands. I was told not to kiss Aunt Rosie hello, because she was recovering from a very serious infection she had acquired in the hospital. When I left the room I was told to sanitize my hands again.

That infection severely damaged our aunt`s immune system and completely debilitated her. While the ultimate cause of her death was cancer, the hospital infection weakened her ability to fight back. We were stunned when we got the call that she had passed.

I have to admit that until a few years ago, I was very cavalier about routine hand-washing. But my wife cured me of my lax behavior. I had been very diligent about washing after using the rest room and handling our dogs, as well as when I handled food, even though my wife might not always agree. To offset that feeling, I bought her a sign that simply read, "All Employees Must Wash Hands." She was mildly amused and then asked me if I`d washed my hands after I placed the sign above the sink.

My wife has always been meticulous about hand-washing and good hygiene, but over the past 10 years or so, her behavior has intensified. I guess I had gotten so accustomed to touching door handles, public phones, public computer keyboards and an endless array of other surfaces, which have been touched by my fellow humans, I never thought about the colonies of germs that are hanging out on these surfaces.

That has all changed now. I am thinking twice and three times about touching door handles. I never touch my nose unless it`s with Kleenex or after I`ve sanitized my hands. And I`ve learned to sneeze and cough into my arm instead of my hand. In business environments, I`m never impolite when I shake a client`s or colleague`s hand, but I make sure to carry hand sanitizer for when the meeting is over, just to play it safe. And I always presume that the other person thinks like I do, but I would never ask. Times have definitely changed.

I`ll be more meticulous than ever, especially in the classroom, when the flu seasons kick in. Now that I`m older, I can`t take chances on being debilitated by illness and students who are sneezing and coughing are creating the perfect environment for a germ invasion.

These days, I`m more than happy to patronize any supplier of hand-sanitizers and sanitizer wipes and I hope the word continues to get out to more of the population that we have to reduce that 70 percent statistic of non-washers, especially after rest room visits. That action should be automatic. Or the cost to innocent bystanders could be an unpleasant infection or the spread of a growing family of germs.

Steve Gaynes can be reached at sgaynes@yahoo.com.