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Little did I expect that the effects of 'ecological' hand dryers had resulted in possible social exclusion for a wide range of vulnerable subgroupsSoundScapeIssue 02 58the soundscapes of public loos through the advent upon us of the league - some might say plague - of 'ecological' hand dryers with names such as Jet Towel, Xlerator, Airforce and Airblade. In stark contrast to their somewhat lipid predecessors: warm air dryers that evaporated moisture languorously; these new breed of hand dryers waste no time and use the force of cold air at extraordinarily high speeds to strip the hand and fingers of moisture. Unfortunately, these new technologies cannot claim to be truly environmentally friendly if they are causing such devastating noise pollution. The Noise Abatement Society has found that the public's attitude towards these devices is one of annoyance, even incredulity, that these brutal sounds have been allowed to intrude into such sensitive spaces. Health threatThe World Health Organisation regards annoyance as generally relating to, "the direct effects of noise on various activities, such as interference with conversation, mental concentration, rest, or recreation". Children, but one vulnerable group affected, are particularly disturbed and scared by these aggressive devices and are not easily reassured due to the impact on speech intelligibility: fright being a natural response for a healthy hearing child when exposed to a burst of high sound pressure consisting of multiple frequencies across the whole of the audible sound spectrum. It is well documented that children's hearing is much more acute than adults' particularly at the higher region of the audible spectrum. And, as all caring parents of young children will know, the last thing you want to instill is a link between discomfort and toilets. This scenario and its ubiquity in UK loos has concerned me so greatly that I decided to study it from the perspective of environmental noise. Little did I expect at the outset of my initial foray, that the effects of "ecological" hand dryers had resulted in possible social exclusion for a wide range of vulnerable subgroups. I learnt of mothers who are unable to use dedicated breast-feeding or baby changing provisions due to the loud noise affecting both themselves and their infants; of the terror of elderly dementia sufferers; of erstwhile able visually impaired people struggling with navigation; of hearing aid users who are forced to turn off their auditory devices as they enter the toilet; and of the pain and discomfort of those with hyperacusis - a condition that is common for those on the autistic spectrum. Conversely, I have spoken to many, in particular men, who positively enjoy the muscularity of the sound in tandem with how it feels. However, from my preliminary field tests, I have acoustic readings from these devices that are akin to the noise of a road drill. While allowable by law, as it won't damage hearing if experienced in short bursts, the stress response affecting many form this noise is undeniable. Return to civilisationFurther complicating matters is that when these hand dryers undergo statutory testing for sound power levels in an anechoic chamber, one numerical figure is calculated in dB(A) and is normally stated on the product specification. The problem is that this data can be misleading, as an anechoic chamber is designed to be as absorbent as possible, whereas public toilets are among the most reflective spaces experienced in modern life. Also the test data does not specify where the energy lies across the sound spectrum nor how it will react in situ: some frequencies being more disturbing and prominent than others, depending on the dimensions, design and furnishings of the room and where within it the device is situated. So, in practice, there is little to be garnered in terms of safety and use requirements from the current reliance on sound power levels alone. This research is in its early stages, but from what I have learnt so far, there are many people suffering in silence at this assault on their hearing sense. However, the answer is not to make shared toilets silent as a level of background noise is desirable - even necessary to avoid users feeling acoustically exposed - to mask personal sounds. However a balance needs to be struck. It is imperative that we endeavour to reach a middle ground where the ecology of our planet, and the health and hygiene of its people are improved without exposing them to harmful, unnecessary noise levels in public conveniences. At the very least it seems civilized to do so.Dr John Levack Drever is Senior Lecturer in Composition and Head of the Unit for Sound Practice Research, Goldsmiths, University of London. For more information visit: http://www.gold.ac.uk/music/staff/drever http://www.myspace.com/johnlevackdrever

SoundScapeIssue 02 59