CALGARY—When Nora Keegan first started researching the noise levels of hand dryers in public washrooms after hearing kids complain the sound hurt their ears, it was part of a project for a local science fair.
She was in Grade 5 at the time, but with the help of her family, she was determined to get a decent enough sample size to produce some findings — and she did.
As she enters Grade 9, she has a research paper published in the Oxford University Press (one of the world’s largest academic journals) under her belt for her work that found the noisy dryers can possibly put young ears at risk.
Now the 13-year-old Calgarian has another task on her mind, one that perhaps most kids her age don’t think about — she wants to write to the federal government and suggest her own health recommendations when it comes to regulating hand dryer noise levels.
From December 2015 until February 2017 — between school, her social life and extracurricular activities, like competing in figure skating and going to camp — Keegan worked on her research.
It began by going place to place, often with her mom, to look for hand dryers in public washrooms, and then measuring their sound levels.
She’d check bathrooms in malls, schools and even in buildings on the University of Calgary campus for the dryers.
“I always was trying to do it on the weekends,” she said. “Instead of maybe visiting with my friends, I would want to go find these hand dryers and measure them.”
Some days, she’d come back empty-handed, but resolved to push on, partly with the encouragement from her now 15-year-old sister Sarah, who at the age of 10, had her own paper published in the same Oxford academic journal. It focused on people’s reactions to human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for boys and girls.
“I’m not sure I would have written a paper, but I saw that (Sarah) did it,” Keegan said, “So then I was like, well, it’s possible for somebody at a young age to do something.”
Keegan’s sample size consisted of 44 hand dryers from various public washrooms. She looked at 10 different heights of ear canals in children, the distances from the walls, and measured the noise level with and without hands in the airstream.
In her paper, she pointed out that previous reports show children have more sensitive hearing than adults and that in Canada, noisemaking toys for sale can’t exceed 100 decibels.
So when her measurements showed that many hand dryers go above and beyond that — the loudest she measured was 121.1 decibels — she wondered why there wasn’t any policies in place to prevent this.
Now Keegan, who hopes to be a marine biologist one day, wants to write to Health Canada with the hopes the federal agency will consider creating noise regulations for hand dryers.
She also wants to talk to some of the hand dryer companies with models that, according to her paper, are operating louder than they say. In her paper, she also notes some manufacturers appear to measure the loudness of hand dryers in controlled conditions, like in the middle of a room with sound-absorbing walls, and at adult ear canal heights.
“To me, that doesn’t make sense, since the sound level should really only be what it is in real life, you know, with the cement walls in bathrooms,” she said. “I hope that hand dryer companies will also change their method testing so that if a regulation is put (in place) it can be accurate.”
But to her father, David Keegan, the project was a signal of his daughter’s determination.
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“Doing this project was a bit tough,” he said, but added curiosity has always been encouraged in their family.
“She is incredibly observant … She kind of does seem to have a skill for noticing things that other people might not, or certainly I won’t notice, or my wife won’t notice.”