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America, our hands are clean!

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a table as Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat testifies at a 2009 House panel hearing on the H1N1 virus.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a table as Rear Adm. Anne Schuchat testifies at a 2009 House panel hearing on the H1N1 virus.
  • Bob Greene: H1N1 virus led people to use hand sanitizer frequently
  • He says Americans have kept up what is now a habit of cleaning hands
  • One company is introducing TV remote controls with anti-microbial properties, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- You probably see it many times every day: at work, on the bus, in restaurants.

Ten years ago, it would have caught your eye, startled you. You would have thought that the people doing it were imitating a comically exaggerated villain in an Austin Powers movie.

What else could it be, as they manically rubbed their hands together in public, flesh against flesh, not missing a spot, as if plotting in their heads the destruction of civilization as we know it?

Today, you hardly even look. It's part of the American scene.

You know what it is:

Hand sanitizer.

The ubiquity of the little bottles is one of those changes in daily life that takes over so quickly that we barely notice. "A little dirt never hurt anything." That was once the unofficial mantra of growing up. "Rub a little dirt on it. Don't be a baby. Get back in the game." That's what baseball managers used to tell players who banged up a shin or an elbow.

So what happened?

The H1N1 pandemic.

Tell the people of the planet that a pandemic is at hand -- and that is exactly what the World Health Organization did in June of 2009 -- and folks tend to sit up and pay attention. The H1N1 virus was called swine flu at first, but whatever it was called, it sounded not only nasty, but deadly.

There were two urgent pieces of official advice: When traveling on airplanes, wear a mask; and use hand sanitizer frequently.

The masks never quite caught on. In the first days of the H1N1 scare, I asked a Southwest Airlines pilot at Midway International Airport in Chicago: "Approximately what percentage of your passengers are wearing masks?"

"Approximately what percent?" he said "Approximately zero point zero percent."

But the hand sanitizers were a different story. Retail outlets could not keep them in stock. An administrator at the University of Colorado told a reporter that at graduation ceremonies, "We had hand sanitizer placed at two different positions as you were about to ascend the stairs to the stage and two different positions as you descended." He said that throughout the ceremony, he'd rub some sanitizer on his palms between shaking the hands of graduates.

During all this, the president and CEO of the company that manufactures Purell hand sanitizer made a public statement asking Americans not to hoard the little bottles: "There is absolutely no need to stockpile product." A pretty good rule of thumb (so to speak) in business is that if you're asking people not to buy up and hoard whatever it is you're making, you've got a hit on your hands (so to speak).

And the funny thing is, even when the end of the pandemic was announced in August of 2010, the heavy use of the hand sanitizers continued. People seemed to like the habit. The marketing research firm Global Industry Analysts Inc. has projected that because of people's newly awakened concern about the need for perpetual cleanliness, the annual market for hand sanitizers in the U.S. will grow to more than $402 million by 2015.

Before the H1N1 scare, people didn't seem quite as spooked by what they touched in the course of a day. After?

Consider this, from DirecTV, the company that provides programming in more than 2 million hotel rooms.

In coming weeks, the company will begin introducing "the first anti-microbial remote" in hotel rooms -- TV remote-control zappers that are "germ-free."

Robert Mercer, a DirecTV spokesman, told me that "an anti-microbial coating -- a type of silver ion" will be applied to the zappers, and that it is formulated "to kill 99 percent of all kinds of flu and cold viruses and germs." He said the company expects that hotel guests will welcome the new zappers, because "we are becoming more and more of a germophobic society."

After all those years of TV news reports that have shown black-light devices being beamed at hotel bedspreads, only to reveal stains so disgusting that viewers at home retch, swoon or faint, anything that promises to keep things clean can't help but attract business. And if we have become a nation of people who long to be James Bond. ...

Not the James Bond who kills the bad guys and drinks the martinis and woos the beautiful women, but the James Bond in the "Dr. No" movie who is sent through an elaborate decontamination chamber on Dr. No's island to make sure he has a clean bill of health. ...

Well, blame it on, or credit it to, that H1N1 scare. The masks are just about nowhere to be seen today, but at Gojo Industries in Ohio -- the company that manufactures Purell -- things continue in high gear. Other American businesses may be struggling in a rugged economy, but Joe Drenik, a Gojo executive, told me that Purell's sales are growing at an 18% annual rate, and that they are about six times what they were in 2000.

Drenik said the reason is simple: "People aren't going to run to the restroom to wash their hands each time they cough, sneeze or touch something gross." Which, apparently, is why they have become so emotionally attached to those little bottles.

So, Mr. Bond, we meet at last.

But first, we'd better squirt some of that stuff onto our hands.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.