Hotel Germs Gross but Probably Not Dangerous

There have been a number of cringe-worthy stories recently about nasty stains and such in hotel rooms. But how filthy are these rooms really? Researchers at the University of Houston's hotel school are trying to look at the science behind the scare tactics. KUHF Health Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel visited a room with them.

(Sound of hotel room door closing)

Katie Kirsch, a senior at the Conrad N. Hilton College, spent her summer here: swabbing down a hotel room and growing the results in the lab.

“The purpose of the study really is to see where the bacteria, the hot spots are, and how significant the risk is.”

Kirsch found that the places you expect to be ickiest are actually not that bad. Toilets and showers for example, get regular scrub-downs by housekeepers using strong chemicals.

So where are the bacteria hiding? Right under your feet, apparently.

“You’re standing in front of one of the biggest hot spots and that is the carpet in front of the door. That is full of bacteria. Carpets get vacuumed, but they rarely get deep cleaned, steam cleaned. And people walk in off of the street with lots of things on their shoes and the first thing that they step into in the room is that carpet, so that’s a big issue.”

Kirsch worked with her professor, food microbiologist Jay Neal.

They sampled three rooms at the campus Hilton Hotel.

Researchers in Indiana and South Carolina are doing equivalent tests in hotels there.

They all looked for total bacteria counts, and looked specifically for e. coli and coliform. Those are two germs that indicate fecal contamination.

So where did they find them? Well, the TV remote. The telephone. Not so much the toilet seat, but on the toilet paper holder.

Kirsch says they’re also on the switches on the bedside lamps.

“They weren’t in huge amounts but the fact that there was some there is pretty gross. I guess people whenever they get up in the middle of the night, go to the bathroom, lay back down, not washing their hands. It could be anything like that.”

But Professor Neal says we shouldn’t panic.

“There’s a gross factor there, is there a risk factor? Probably not. If it really grosses you out keep your socks on in the room.”

Other good tips were:

Don’t let your toddler crawl around near the door.

Don’t lay your toothbrush face down on the bathroom counter.

Some people like to disinfect the remote control, or put it in a plastic bag.

But Neal says the sampling didn’t reveal bacteria levels that represent a significant health hazard.

“The rooms are clean, they’re not sanitized. Your homes are clean, your homes aren’t sanitized. Do we need  to have a hospital setting here? Probably not. There’s certain things we could do better in here but by and large for the amount of volume they’re doing, the housekeepers are doing a good job.”

But housekeepers are up against a lot:

“We’ve seen everything in here.”

Dayra Mendez is a housekeeping supervisor.

“They come they throw the Coke all over the furniture, they throw beer, they mess up the whole restroom. They just aren’t as neat as they are in their house.”

Kirsch says the studies, when published, could lead to changes in the hospitality industry.

“You have industry standards in hospitals, in restaurants, but really there’s nothing for hotels.  And even within a chain at each property there are variances in how they clean and what they use to clean.”

Neal acknowledges that while some people are unnecessarily germophobic, others mighty truly benefit from a sanitized hotel room — patients getting treated at the Medical Center, for example.

Some hotels are already starting to market extra-clean or hypo-allergenic rooms.

Neal thinks that’s premature. He says the industry first needs reliable data, to see where the problems are, and then do further research on how to improve housekeeping methods.

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...