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Hotel Rooms’ Most Bacteria-Laden Surfaces? Don’t Touch That Dial

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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hotel room bacteria remote

Courtesy of iStockphoto/tzam

Whenever I stay in a hotel room, I’m a little wary of the throw pillows, a bit skittish about the television remote and would never even consider taking a bath. Perhaps I’m being overly paranoid, but as a slight germaphobe, I figure it doesn’t hurt to be a little cautious.

New preliminary research vindicates at least some of my minor paranoia: About 81 percent of hotel room surfaces sampled held at least some fecal bacteria. And television remotes are, in fact, among the most bacteria-laden surfaces, ranking up there with toilets and bathroom sinks. The findings were presented June 17 at the American Society for Microbiology’s 2012 general meeting.

For the research, the team sampled for bacterial contamination on 18 different surfaces in a total of nine hotel rooms across three states (Indiana, South Carolina and Texas). The light switch, carpet and telephone also had high levels of these bugs, which included the full workup of aerobic and coliform bacteria, not all of which will make you sick, but some of which can—and many of which could pose a threat to those with compromised immune systems.

The team also found, perhaps not surprisingly, that many cleaning items in housekeeping carts, such as mops and sponges, to have high levels of bacteria. The concern there is that these implements could easily transmit harmful bacteria from one surface or room to another.

The findings aren’t just meant to paralyze the anxious traveler with germ-induced fear. “Hoteliers have an obligation to provide their guests with a safe and secure environment,” Katie Kirsch, one of the researchers and an undergraduate at the University of Houston, said in a prepared statement. “Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industry wide.” So how do housekeepers and managers tell if a hotel room is clean enough? The same way you or I inspect our own rooms: “visual assessment,” Kirsch said, “which has been shown to be ineffective in measuring levels of sanitation,” presumably even the white-glove-across-the-baseboard method.

Housekeeping policy could at least be guided by a little science, she noted. The study was designed to apply food safety’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system to hotel environments for the first time. Hotel employees spend an average of about half an hour cleaning and preparing each room, so, she said, “identifying high-risk items within a hotel room would allow housekeeping managers to strategically design cleaning practices and allocate time to efficiently reduce the potential health risks posed by microbial contamination in hotel rooms.” In other words, managers could suggest spending less time dusting off that bedside Bible and more time wiping down the TV remote.

What surface seems the safest to touch? The headboard. But good luck eating off of it.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. IncredibleMouse 8:20 pm 06/20/2012

    Who doesn’t eat off the headboard?

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  2. 2. Rob Hooft 3:21 am 06/23/2012

    Also in the news today: “Doggy Dust May Lower Asthma Risk”…… http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=doggy-dust-may-lower-asthma-risk-12-06-19

    Link to this

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