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So, what's with those electric hand dryers? Clean and green, yes, but also really annoying

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Janet Fang, temporary hand model, demonstrates the skin-rippling effect of the XLERATOR, the first in an increasingly popular class of more powerful hand dryers. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

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Patrons to this Penn Station restroom in New York unanimously preferred paper towels to hand dryers, an unscientific study showed. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

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Janet Fang, temporary hand model, demonstrates the skin-rippling effect of the XLERATOR, the first in an increasingly popular class of more powerful hand dryers. (Emily Muhlhausen/CNS)

Even the most dedicated environmentalists must sometimes take a step back and ask themselves: “Is this green, or is it just annoying?”

A prime example of this conundrum: the restroom hand dryer. Many eco-conscious bathroom-goers quail when, turning from the sink with dripping hands, they face the choice of paper towel or the electric hand dryer. The dryer has its fans. Facilities managers and janitors adore the way it reduces cost and garbage. And it has been touted as environmentally-friendly since long before the current concern with green living and carbon footprints.

But dryer-detractors don’t care. “If they don’t work, what does it matter if they’re environmentally friendly?” asked Jessica Stuart, a project manager at a New York multimedia production company. “I hate them. I usually just wipe my hands on my pants.” Adds Pam London-Barrett, a Pennsylvania psychiatrist, “If I have a choice, I’ll go for the paper towels. They’re faster, and the dryers usually don’t work very well.”

Despite the seeming ubiquity of hand dryers, only 10 percent of public restrooms have them, estimates Alan Gettleman, the director of marketing for Bobrick, a restroom-product manufacturer based in North Hollywood, Calif. The industry itself has about $50 million in sales a year, he said.

Most public restroom users don’t use them, he said. “We have them in our building here, and even people who work for a company selling dryers don’t use them,” Gettleman said; personally, he “absolutely” prefers paper towels.

But as green building becomes more popular, contractors and facilities managers increasingly turn to dryers for the environmental benefits and cost savings, said Gettleman, especially in buildings with a “captive audience,” like airports and restaurants. Dryers reduce waste and save trees, he said. World Dryer, the Berkeley, Ill., hand dryer manufacturer that developed the first dryers in 1948, estimates that a fast-food restaurant switching from paper towels to dryers saves 34 trees.

Nonsense, says Glen Whitman, an economics professor at California State University, Northridge, and a dryer-despiser. “I’ll be standing there, already irritated that the thing isn’t actually drying my hands, and I’ll be staring at a sign saying ‘No trees were harmed,’ or ‘Save a tree.’” Trees are a renewable resource, he pointed out, unlike the fossil fuels powering electric dryers. “From an economic perspective, using more trees creates a demand for more trees and causes trees to be planted,” Whitman said. “Nobody goes around saying that cows will go extinct if we eat beef.”

But potential environmental benefits go beyond saving trees. In 2002, Environmental Building News estimated that virgin paper towels use more than three times the energy of dryers, while recycled towels use twice as much. A more detailed 2001 life-cycle assessment by Environmental Resources Management in Britain found that dryers were more environmentally friendly than virgin paper towels in seven of eight environmental impact categories--results to be expected given the study was funded by hand dryer manufacturers.

Paper towels consumed significantly fewer non-renewable resources than dryers, however, and the findings were based on the assumption that people drying their hands use two paper towels. At one paper towel per dry, the towels were considerably more environmentally friendly than the dryer in four of eight categories and equivalent in two more.

In a highly unscientific study conducted for this article, hand-drying choices were observed in two busy public restrooms in New York’s Pennylvania Station. Results show that when given a choice, women (this reporter did not invade the men’s room) prefer paper towels.

In the first restroom, in a waiting area, both paper towels and electric dryers are available. Of the 17 women who used the facilities in 10 minutes, not one chose to blow their hands dry.

The second restroom, located in a busier concourse, offered only electric dryers. Thirty-one women entered and went, and only 19 used the dryers. Of the rest, five wiped their hands on their clothing, three walked out with hands still dripping, and several did not wash their hands at all.

“There are many people who will choose not to wash their hands if there’s an electric hand dryer. They’re a deterrent to good hand-washing,” said Jim Mann, executive director of the Handwashing for Life Institute, an industry partnership group that says it is “devoted to advancing the science of hand hygiene.” Members include makers of paper towels and towel dispensers.

In a fact sheet titled “Hand-washing Facts to Know,” Kimberley-Clark, the maker of Kleenex and Scott paper towels, cites a study by the University of Westminster in London funded by “the Association of Makers of Soft Tissue Papers.” Hot air dryers, the study says, take nearly four times as long to dry hands, leave hands half as dry, and leave more than a third of people wiping their hands on their clothes.

Some dryer manufacturers have introduced high-speed dryers that dry hands in as little as 10 seconds, compared to the normal 30 or 45. The Xlerator, introduced by the Massachusetts-based Excel Dryer in 2002, uses higher temperatures and a more forceful blast of air to reduce drying time by two-thirds. It was the first dryer to qualify for LEED credits for green buildings, said Bruce Bohner, Excel’s national sales director. Such dryers are so strong they ripple the skin on hands, an effect chronicled on YouTube in dozens of masterworks like “Xlerator: the Hand Dryer of Death.”

Paper towels offer an undeniable sanitary advantage by allowing restroom visitors to avoid contaminated surfaces, said Robert Brubaker, the program manager of the nonprofit American Restroom Association. “A lot of people really like to use paper to cover the door handle when leaving the restroom,” he said.

But if there is no other option but the dryer, Whitman, the economics professor, advised dryer-dreaders: “Dry your hands on the lower legs of your jeans, so you don’t get wet spots all around your waist and crotch.”

E-mail: elm2128@columbia.edu