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The bacterial horror of hot-air hand dryers

“Employees must wash hands before leaving.”

“Please wash your hands before leaving.”

We’ve all seen the signs. In America we’re often encouraged, and rightfully so, to wash our hands when we use the restroom. Washing our hands regularly has shown to help protect us from spreading germs. When the emphasis began to be placed on washing hands years ago, we began using more and more paper towels. It only makes sense. Well over the years, we’ve learned that paper towels, even recycled ones, can be bad for the environment.

So we made a change, and those that didn’t change often gave an alternative. It's almost impossible now to walk into a public bathroom and not see a hand dryer. You know them. That large often silver rectangle sticking out of the wall that seems to blow hot air at 1000 mph, and has the whirl of a jet engine.

Hand dryers are often provided as an alternative to paper towels to reduce costs as well as help keep our waste to a minimum. While hand dryers may be better for the environment and a company’s bottom line, a new study suggests they may be helping to spread bacteria. That’s right. After you heeded the warning of those signs taped to the glass of your local public bathroom, when you washed your hands and dried them using a hand dryer there’s a good chance you just spread fecal bacteria all over the bathroom.

The studies conducted by the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University found that when exposing bacteria to bathrooms for “two minutes with the hand dryers off only grew one colony of bacteria, or none at all. However, petri dishes exposed to hot air from a bathroom hand dryer for 30 seconds grew up to 254 colonies of bacteria (though most had from 18 to 60 colonies of bacteria).” Bacteria in bathrooms becomes airborne when toilets without lids are flushed. The flushing “aerosolizes a fine mist of microbes” that can cover an area as large as 65 square feet.

Paper towels are bad for the environment, and hand dryers can spread what should we use? At this time, there doesn’t appear to be an easy answer. If you’re concerned about unnecessary waste and want to protect the environment, then use hand dryers. But if you want to limit the amount of germs you spread, reach for a paper towel. Let’s hope experts come up with better alternatives, and soon.

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