What have Boris, nasty germs and an England cricket legend got in common with a jet hand dryer?

A friend of mine recently sent me a message saying “I think I have finally lost the plot. I was listening to the World at One on Radio 4 with Mark Mardell and the subject changed from the breakdown of Boris Johnson’s marriage to you talking about the merits of hand dryers vs paper towels, did I imagine this?”

Of course, I told him it was in his imagination and he needed to relax a little but the reality was the BBC had been very keen for me to speak.

Bizarrely, the debate between the methods of drying hands has became mainstream news recently. The paper towel companies are relentlessly funding fake news and dubious research that allows some sort of attention grabbing ‘hand dryers-germ headline’ to be peddled by their PR departments to all the news agencies. Every other week there is some over hyped headline on the subject and every media outlet loves a good public health scare story.

In this instance, I couldn’t help thinking the scheduling of a Boris story followed by a segment about potential germs was part of a subtle media agenda to form an association with the eccentric politician and unpleasant pathogens lurking around in daily life!

Anyway, back to the events of my first media appearance on the subject. I received the call from the BBC researcher just as I was about to head to the Oval to watch Alistair Cooks final appearance in his highly distinguished career.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to read the latest headlines or associated report but still agreed to go on the radio to defend my industry. On reflection it was a shame I was so unprepared as the research was so weak and inconclusive I would have totally torn it to shreds.

It is actually interesting that the University of Leeds, which houses one of the main researchers of the study, has been replacing paper towels in all its locations with hand dryers in very recent times.  This has occurred even though the professor has published research, funded by the paper towel industry leading to scaremongering in the press, prior to these changes. 

If there was such a public health scare why would this happen and why wouldn’t a University who have a healthy balance sheet, not find the money to fund the research themselves rather than wait for the European Tissue Symposium to fund it?

The questioning about the aerosolization of bacteria being put to me by the host was very misleading. Largely this question related to how the study was being reported in the media, not the content of the study itself. The suggestion was that hand dryers were aerosolising bacteria of unwashed hands for everyone to breathe, the reality was nothing of the sort.

The study looked at 3 hospital toilets in France, UK and Italy.  The levels of bacteria were measured in the air, door, floor, dispenser / hand dryer, sink and collected dust in washrooms using paper and washrooms using hand dryers. In all three instances the air born bacteria counts were negligible and in both Italy and France the washroom with hand dryers had less bacteria in the air than that of paper towels!

The washrooms with hand dryers showed a greater level of bacteria on the floor and on the unit itself. However, had they measured the levels in the paper towel bin or around it, a similar outcome would be expected as bacteria tends to bread in moisture.  The measurements were only taken from directly next to the hand dryer or paper towel dispenser, not where the paper towels ended up.

The scientists actually state a number of limitations in the study which include not controlling the behaviours of people after washing their hands.  So even though there were more bacteria found on the floors and the hand dryer, this was most likely down to people shaking their hands before reaching the dryer.  A normal thing people do and guess where the water ends up.  Yes, on the floor or the bottom of the hand dryer.

Incidently it is important to note that the exact location the sample taken from the hand dryer is not precisely stated in the methods.  The study says “this contamination could then (just speculation, no proof or reference in the study!) be increased due to the way the dryer’s function.”  But where did they find the bacteria’s exact location on the hand dryer so that it could be hypothesised that it would be increased from normal hand dryer functioning?

In all cases the bacteria levels were tiny in comparison with that found on everyday objects. The common-sense approach would say, don’t rub your hands on the dryer, which is touch free so there is no need, or the floor. Then there is not even the slightest chance of a problem.

To put this in perspective, research by EMLab P&K, highlighted by CBT Nuggets found that there are:

  • 4,620,000 bacteria units per square inch on an ID badge
  • 3,543,000 bacteria units per square inch on an office keyboard
  • 1,600,082 bacteria units per square inch on a mobile phone

Out of this, 42% were bacteria that cause strep and staph infections and 21% was bacteria resistant to antibiotics, whose group include MRSA.

In comparison, the total amount of bacteria found on a sample size of 15.5 square inch in this hand dryer study I was asked to comment on was on average just 163 bacteria units around hand dryer and floor.

Bigger sample area yet significantly fewer bacteria than every day office equipment!

Image reproduced with permission from CBT Nuggets full article Bytes and Bacteria: Exposing the Germs on your Technology

The scientific paper was littered with words like “potential” and “maybe” just like most of the other studies that have been published out there that the media then get hold of and sensationalise and spin.

While we don’t dispute the science, the headlines stating hand dryers should be banned, are germ cannons etc are highly misleading and damaging to the wider public interests and bear no resemblance to reality. Both methods have been independently proven to have the same results for hand hygiene, the most significant factor in infection control.

Hand dryers have the potential to save large buildings like hospitals hundreds of thousands of pounds. We don’t think hand dryers should be in wards or surgical areas because the need for quiet has to take precedent, but in general public areas the cost savings in a mid-sized hospital are significant enough to pay for an extra surgeon or two.

The saving is calculated at as much as 98%. The environmental benefits of hand dryers are huge and there is nothing more unhygienic than a blocked toilet caused by paper towels or an empty paper towel dispenser.

So, we urge you to look at the detail behind the headline and consider how irresponsible this it.

The facts are that hand dryers are the no 1 choice in the UK and work place absenteeism has fallen significantly.  Wouldn’t this be the other way around if there was a public health concern?

If you would like to discuss the scientific study, or any other scientific study in fact that underpins these scaremongering headlines, then we would be more than happy to have a chat.


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Written by: Andrew Cameron

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