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Where you’ll find the most bacteria in your hotel room

“Currently in the lodging industry there isn’t standardization with the cleaning,” said Katie Kirsch, one of the study’s co-authors.

TV remotes -- along with bedside lamp switches -- have the highest levels of bacterial contamination inside hotel rooms.

Just as we’ve gotten use to inspecting our hotel rooms (yes, even the upscale ones) for bedbugs, along comes research that suggests we need to take yet another precautionary action before unpacking our suitcase and settling down for a worry-free night:

We need to wipe the TV remote control and the light switches with sanitizing cloths. According to the findings of a study presented Sunday at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco, those are the two most bacteria-contaminated areas in hotel rooms.

Yes, the researchers also found plenty of unpleasant microorganisms in the bathroom toilet and sink, but apparently not at the same high levels as on the remote control and the light switches.

‘Trial-and-error’ cleaning

“Currently in the lodging industry there isn’t standardization with the cleaning,” said Katie Kirsch, one of the study’s co-authors and a recent graduate of the University of Houston, in a webcast interview broadcasted from the meeting. “So the practices vary between [hotel] brands and even properties within the brands.”

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Hotels are not using cleaning methods that are based on actual data about the best ways of sanitizing a hotel room between guests, Kirsch added. “It’s just what they think is best,” she said. “It’s trial and error, essentially.”

Those trial-and-error practices appear to include using the same cleaning tools for everything in the room, for Kirsch found that the sponges and mops on hotel housekeepers’ carts were highly contaminated with bacteria. “That presents a very high risk of cross-contamination because if you clean the toilet with the sponge and then go to the counter where you put your toothbrush, then that bacteria can be transferred,” said Kirsch.

Hmmm.  Seems like common sense rather than data is missing from the hotels’ cleaning methodology.

Samples from three states

For the study, Kirsch and two other student researchers, one from Purdue University and another from the University of South Carolina, sampled 19 surface areas in three separate rooms in three hotels — one in each of the researchers’ states (Texas, Indiana and South Carolina). They tested for both coliform (fecal) bacteria and aerobic bacteria (which include the microorganisms that cause streptococcal and staphylococcal infections).

They found, as already noted, that the highest levels of bacterial contamination were on the TV remote and the bedside lamp switch, as well as in the bathroom and on items on the housekeepers’ carts, particularly those cross-contaminating sponges and mops.

The surfaces with the lowest bacterial contamination, on the other hand, were the bed’s headboard, the curtain rods and (surprisingly) the bathroom door handle.

Study’s limitations

This study has all sorts of caveats, of course. To begin with, it hasn’t been published and, thus, hasn’t gone through peer review to check its methodology and findings. It was also a very small study, so the results are, in Kirsch’s own words, “very preliminary.” And, as Kirsch also points out, the study was not designed to determine whether the level of bacteria found would cause disease — only whether the rooms were being thoroughly cleaned.

But then does anybody really believe that hotel rooms are immaculately cleaned? In 2006, reporters for ABC News Primetime armed themselves with a black light and visited 20 well-known hotels in New York, Miami, Houston and Los Angeles (including some that charged $400 a night) to determine just how clean the rooms really were. They found dried semen on bedspreads and samples of urine all over the rooms — even, in one case, on a hotel Bible. Each room had traces of at least one of those substances.

The ABC report recommended traveling with sanitizing wipes and using them on high-touch areas in the hotel rooms — like the TV remote and the light switches. They also recommended sleeping without the bedspread and washing your hands a lot.

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Ah, the joys of travel.