Children wise to fear hand dryers, and 13-year-old proves it with published paper

Children who say hand dryers "hurt my ears" are correct. Nora Keegan, 13, has been studying the issue for four years and her research paper has just been published in Paediatrics & Child Health.

Calgary student Nora Keegan has been studying decibel levels in hand dryers since she was 9 years old

Grade 8 student Nora Keegan with her most recent project, An Effective Model to Reduce Noise of Hand Dryers. The blue air filters can reduce noise by roughly 11 decibels. (David Keegan)

Children who say hand dryers "hurt my ears" are correct.

A new research paper by that very title has just been published in Paediatrics & Child Health, Canada's premier peer-reviewed pediatric journal. And the researcher, 13-year-old Nora Keegan, has been studying the issue since she was nine years old.

"In Grade 4, I noticed that my ears kind of hurt after the hand dryer," Keegan told the Calgary Eyeopener. "And then later, at the start of Grade 5, I also noticed that my ears were hurting after I used the hand dryer. So then I decided to test it to see if they were dangerous to hearing, and it turns out they are."

Keegan used a decibel meter, and measured the noise at different heights and different distances from the wall.

"I thought it would be good to have a lot of children's heights and also women's height and men's height, and then I measured 18 inches from the wall, which is the industry standard. And I also measured 12 inches from the wall since I thought the children might stand closer because their hands and arms are shorter."

Nora Keegan, then 9, measures a hand dryer for her research. (David Keegan)

She discovered something even more alarming.

"And then one time I was testing on the decibel meter and my hand accidentally passed into the airstream flow, and the decibels shot up a lot," she said. "So then I decided to make that another part of my testing method. So I also measured with hands in the air flow and without hands in the air."

Keegan discovered that the sound was even louder with the hands in the airflow.

"And it was also really loud at children's heights and manufacturers don't measure for children's height as much either."

Eventually, Keegan determined that there are two models in particular that are harmful for children's ears: the Dyson and XCelerator, which both operate at about 110 decibels. Health Canada has regulated that no toys operate at more than 100 decibels.

"So this is very loud, around the level of a rock concert," Keegan said. "And this is also louder than Health Canada's regulation for children's toys, as they know that at this level it poses a danger to children's hearing."

Children have smaller ear canals and more sensitive follicles. And they tend to stand closer to the dryers because their bodies are smaller and their arms are shorter.

These are all things Keegan started documenting in a series of research projects.

Nora Keegan in Grade 5, the first year she studied the decibels of hand dryers. This science project was titled Do Hand Dryers Hurt Our Ears? (David Keegan)

"So it started out as a school science fair in Grade 5. And then I really enjoyed it, and I thought I could do more with it," she said. "So then I continued working on it in Grade 6, and then Grade 7, I started writing the paper, and it just got published now in Paediatrics & Child Health."

Keegan is a Grade 8 student at Branton Junior High School in Calgary. The full title of her paper is, "Children who say hand dryers 'hurt my ears' are correct: A real-world study examining the loudness of automated hand dryers in public places."

But the young scientist, who says she hopes to have a career as a marine biologist, isn't stopping with this personal success. She wants to do something about the problem.

By experimenting with different materials, she's made a model that reduces the noise by 11 decibels.

Keegan's synthetic air filter, which looks like a fuzzy handbag, absorbs the sound waves.

"The air comes down further so even though your hands still reach the airflow, then your ears are a greater distance from where the air comes out."

Keegan conducted an informal test of the air filter at her school.

"I couldn't really find a way to test it, but I installed it in my school's washroom and I found that it didn't (heat up). People seemed to enjoy it and it didn't seem to have a problem."

Keegan said she hasn't tried to do anything official with the air filter — yet.

"I think I might go and talk to the manufacturers and also I might go and talk to Health Canada because even though this is a study, it's still only one study. So it'd be better if they tested more hand dryers and found more about that loudness of hand dryers."

Keegan assessed 44 different hand dryers, from places that kids would be using them all over Calgary — arenas, restaurants, schools, libraries and shopping malls.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.