Are public hand dryers too loud for kids?

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High-speed hand dryers in public restrooms are a convenience with an annoying side effect: they are loud!

Are they loud enough to do hearing damage to a child who is standing right next to it? The short answer is possibly. [Update: My response used to be no – but after seeing the science fair project of 9-year-old Canadian Nora Keegan, it’s clear this needs further study].

Dr. John Drever of Goldsmiths University has studied this and suggested it won’t cause hearing damage unless you’re right next to it with the dryer running non-stop for 7 minutes. However, Dr. Drever was making the assumption of maximum 90 dB loudness where as Keegan’s science fair project shows certain models can reach 110 dB when a hand is interrupting the air stream and the ear is near the dryer. At this level of loudness, hearing damage can happen much faster.

If you’re concerned a dryer is too loud, the best tactic is to keep your child at a distance. Whether that’s walking against the other wall or lifting them up getting their ears even a few feet away from the source could make a difference.

How the Contrast to Silence Makes it Worse

Regardless if it’s safe or not, there’s another problem many parents face – children who are scared of public restrooms because of the noise. Dr. Drever added,

 I have been informed by many parents that their children are terrified by the sound of high-speed hand dryers, and as all caring parents of young children will know, the last thing you want to instill is a link between discomfort and toilets.

Public toilets tend to be quieter than other public spaces so the shift between the quiet to the noise of a hand-dryer can be startling especially when unexpected. Even a flushing toilet can be a surprise – and uncomfortably loud. Kids under the age of 5 perceive sounds louder than adults and they’re closer to toilets and hand dryers which makes it louder, too. It’s no wonder restrooms are a source of stress or fear for some kids!

Tips to help a child who’s scared of sounds in public restrooms

  1. Look for a family or unisex restroom. A smaller space may not be as loud as a large, reverberant restroom with lots of stalls. Some malls and public places even have restrooms with play areas and small toilets for kids.
  2. Use another sound to “mask” the loud sound (the ear will adapt so it won’t seem quite as loud). Listen to music or turn on a quick video.
  3. Carry earplugs or cover their ears with your hands.
  4. If your child is afraid of auto-flushing toilets, you can put something over the sensor (like tape or a post-it note) so it won’t go off until you’re ready.