Home Cleaning & Maintenance The Hand Dryer Versus Paper Towel Debate Continues

The Hand Dryer Versus Paper Towel Debate Continues


As an observer of the lodging industry, one of the most fascinating ongoing debates to watch is the hand dryer versus paper towel debate. You almost need a Ph.D. to understand it all.

The center of the battle is the public restroom and the conversation involves many issues: environmental impact, hygiene, labor, plumbing and even plumbing code specifications. The more you learn, the more confused you can get—kind of like reading about the Mueller investigation.

What prompted me to write about this topic is an online article in the Journal of Hospital Infection posted in July. The title of the article: “Environmental contamination by bacteria in hospital washrooms according to hand-drying method: a multi-centre study.” Researchers from the University of Leeds (U.K.) performed a multi-center, internal-crossover study comparing bacterial contamination levels in washrooms with hand-drying by either paper towels or jet air dryers. A total of 120 sampling sessions occurred over 12 weeks in each of three hospitals (U.K., France, Italy). Bacteria were cultured from air, multiple surfaces, and dust. One place where samples were taken: the restroom floor. Researchers found that bacterial contamination was lower in public restrooms where paper towels were used versus those where high-speed hand dryers were used.

One thing you should know about the study is that it was funded by the European Tissue Symposium. According to an article in USA Today, the University of Leeds said the European Tissue Symposium had no influence on the peer-reviewed research. One hand dryer supplier I communicated with said the study was set up to favor the paper industry. More reason to be confused, right?

William Gagnon, Vice President of Marketing and Key Accounts, Excel Dryer, Inc., on his company’s website, states, “Over the last 40 years, numerous scientific researchers have validated the hygienic safety of heated air as a drying medium. These independent, third party studies were conducted with careful methodology at major academic or medical institutions.”

Click here to read the many reasons Excel Dryer believes its high-speed hand dryers are the best green option. Click here to read why the European Tissue Symposium believes paper towels are the smart choice for drying hands.

Not All Hand Dryers are the Same

Keep in mind that not all hand dryers are the same. Some do not use heated air. And, trough-style dryers can catch and hold water blown off users’ hands, leaving pools of stagnant water where bacteria can grow. The trough area is also susceptible to collecting trash and foreign objects such as hair, gum and/or other liquids, further creating an unhygienic environment and potential breeding area for bacteria. You do need to do your homework before choosing a hand dryer.

What hospital folks are most concerned about is bacterial contamination. The most vulnerable people to infection could be using their public restrooms. When hands are dried by a high-speed hand dryer, microbes are blown off and spread around the restroom. In case you did not know, microscopic particles (fecal matter) are already floating around the public restroom from all the lidless toilets flushing. Oh joy! Each flush generates what is known as a “toilet plume.” If public restroom toilets did have lids, airborne bacteria concentrations would be reduced by a factor of 12. Believe it or not, using lids on public toilets contradicts U.S. Uniform Plumbing Code specifications. I guess it makes some sense if you are the one who has to clean the toilet lids.

Numerous studies have proven just how far toilet water particles travel. MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage covered a bathroom with 24 toothbrushes, two of which they brushed with each morning—the others they simply rinsed every day for a month. As experimental controls, the MythBusters kept two untainted toothbrushes in an office far away from the lavatory. At the end of the month-long trial, they sent their toothbrush collection to a microbiologist for bacterial testing. Astonishingly, all the toothbrushes were speckled with microscopic fecal matter, including the ones that had never seen the inside of a bathroom. Yikes! Think about that the next time you brush your teeth!

How far particles travel does have to do with the strength of the flush, the design of the bowl and the flush mechanism. Just because a toilet is low-flow does not mean it is problem free. In one study using a dual-flush toilet—watching the video will make you chuckle, well kind of—using a fluorescent solution, fluorescent lighting and toothbrushes placed various distances from the toilet, it is visually proven just how far the droplets travel. Hand dryer air flow strength and velocity can also have an impact on how far droplets move.

Hand Dryers’ Environmental Advantage

I am by no means an expert on the paper towel versus hand dryer debate. That said, it is clear to me that high-speed hand dryers easily have the environmental and operational advantage—no paper waste, no having to refill paper towel containers, nobody throwing paper towels down the toilet, etc. Excel Dryer had a Life Cycle Assessment Study conducted by Quantis, an international Life Cycle Assessment research firm, which was peer reviewed to ISO 14040 Standards. The study determined that when compared to traditional electric hand dryers and paper towels (virgin and 100 percent recycled content), the XLERATOR Hand Dryer reduces the Climate Changing Score (carbon footprint) of hand drying by 50 to 75 percent.

When it comes to public restroom hygiene, things get a little fuzzier and you know each side will present proof to back up its product claims. Maybe that is why a lot of public restrooms have both hand dryers and paper towels? Nobody is really sure what to do?

All I can think of now is toilet plumes. The next time I walk into a public restroom I will…turn around and walk back out.

Glenn Hasek can be reached at editor@greenlodgingnews.com.

Green Lodging News Adds Excel Dryer as Directory Partner

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