Newspaper article

Latest 'Paper Towels vs. Electric Hand Dryers' Study Underscores Need for Skepticism

Newspaper article

Latest 'Paper Towels vs. Electric Hand Dryers' Study Underscores Need for Skepticism

Article excerpt

Public restrooms are places that often elicit an "eww" response. That ickiness factor got magnified last week, however, when British researchers at the University of Leeds reported that electric hand dryers -- one of the most ubiquitous features of modern public restrooms -- spread bacteria.

Lots of bacteria.

Specifically, the study, which was published online in the Journal of Hospital Infection, reported that airborne bacteria counts were 4[1/2] times higher near high-powered jet air-dryers than around less-forceful warm-air dryers.

Furthermore, the jet air-dryers spewed out bacteria counts that were 27 times higher than when people dried their hands using paper towels, according to the study.

This finding seemed to back up a 2012 Australian study, which had also set out to determine which hand-drying method was most hygienic. After reviewing 12 previous studies on the topic, the authors of that paper (published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings) concluded that paper towels 1) dry hands efficiently, 2) remove bacteria effectively and 3) cause less contamination in washrooms. They thus declared paper towels more hygienic than electric air dryers and recommended their use in all hospital settings.

So, does this latest study settle the issue? Can we all finally agree with the Washington Post headline, which declared two years ago -- after the Australian paper was published -- that "The Paper Towel-Hand Dryer Wars Are Over"?

Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. For, as the anonymous surgeon who blogs as "Skeptical Scalpel" points out, this latest study contains some major flaws. And there's an irksome problem with the earlier Australian review paper, too.

Questionable methods

Here's "Skeptical Scalpel" on the main problems with the latest study:

From the paper's Methods section: "For each test, gloved hands [not bare hands] were first coated by immersion in a suspension of lactobacilli (107 cfu/mL) that were cultured from a proprietary yoghurt. …

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