“Paper or…?” Drying your hands has unexpected consequences

We’re all familiar with the following question:  Paper or plastic?

For decades, every purchase in a supermarket or drugstore has led to this question.  And for decades, many of us have wondered:  Is it better—for the environment, for my pocketbook, for my overall well-being—to request paper or plastic?  The answer hasn’t always been clear.

Never mind.  Today, in San Francisco and an increasing number of other cities, the question is moot.  Local ordinances ban plastic bags and require customers to pay for paper ones, thus encouraging shoppers to carry their own reusable bags.  The “paper or plastic” question is fast disappearing.

But now we’re confronted with a new but even more troubling question:  When we use a restroom in a public place and we wash our hands (as we’re repeatedly urged to do), should we use paper towels or an air blower?

In this case, we usually don’t have a choice.  Restaurants, stores, theaters, museums, and other institutions with restrooms for their patrons generally confront us with only one way to dry our hands:  paper towels OR air blowers.  A few establishments offer both, thereby giving us a choice, but most do not.

I’m a strong proponent of paper towels, and my position recently garnered support from an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic, Rodney Lee Thompson.

According to a story in the Wall Street Journal last December, the Mayo Clinic has published a comprehensive study of every known hand-washing study done since 1970.  The conclusion?  Drying one’s skin is essential to staving off bacteria, and paper towels are better at doing that than air blowers.

Why?  According to this study, paper towels are more efficient, they don’t splatter germs, they won’t dry out your skin, and most people prefer them (and therefore are more likely to wash their hands in the first place).

Thompson’s own study was one of those included in the overall study, and he concurs with its conclusions.  He observed people washing their hands at places like sports stadiums.  “The trouble with blowers,” he says, is that “they take so long.”  Most people dry their hands for a short time, then “wipe them on their dirty jeans, or open the door with their still-wet hands.”

Besides being time-consuming, most blowers are extremely noisy.  Their decibel level often strikes me as deafening.  Like Thompson, I think these noisy and inefficient blowers “turn people off.”

But, he adds, there’s “no downside to the paper towel,” either psychologically or environmentally.  Thompson states that electric blowers use more energy than producing a paper towel, so they don’t appear to benefit the environment either.

The air-blower industry argues that blowers reduce bacterial transmission, but studies show that the opposite is true.  Much to my surprise, these studies found that blowers tend to spread bacteria from 3 to 6 feet.  To keep bacteria from spreading, Thompson urges using a paper towel to dry your hands, opening the restroom door with it, then throwing it into the trash.

A recent episode of the popular TV series “Mythbusters” has provided new evidence to support Thompson’s conclusions.  The results of tests conducted on this program, aired in June 2013, demonstrated that paper towels are more effective at removing bacteria from one’s hands and that air blowers spread more bacteria around the blower area.

In San Francisco, many restrooms have posted signs stating that they’re composting paper towels to reduce waste.  Because San Francisco has embarked on an ambitious composting scheme, we’re not even adding paper towels to our landfills or recycling bins.  Other cities may already be doing the same, and still others (like New York City, where composting has already been proposed) will undoubtedly follow.

I strongly advocate replacing air blowers with paper towels in public restrooms.  Political leaders, including those who’ve already compelled their constituents to abandon plastic bags for the sake of the environment, should carefully review this issue as well.  If they conclude, as overwhelming evidence suggests, that paper towels are better both for our health and for the environment, they should enact local ordinances requiring that public restrooms use paper towels.

Paper or…?  The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.  The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

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