Fear-Mongering Rears Its Head in Hotel Room Germ Study

When the media glommed onto a news release issued by the American Society for Microbiology last month, America responded with a collective “ewwww.”

The study tallied the location and number of germs in the average hotel room. Researchers from the University of Houston concluded that the items most heavily contaminated with bacteria were television remotes, and that bacteria were transmitted from room to room aboard housekeeping equipment.

The point of this effort was to improve general hotel hygiene by standardizing cleaning procedures industry-wide.

According to the news release, “The study was designed as the first step in applying the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system to hotel room cleanliness. Originally developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, HACCP is a systematic preventive approach that identifies potential physical, chemical and biological hazards and designs measurements to reduce these risks to safe levels.”

Wow. That’s lofty.

As might be expected, toilets and bathroom sinks were pretty germy, but researchers also found high levels of bacterial contamination on the TV remote and the bedside lamp switch. Some of highest levels of contamination were found on items in the housekeepers’ carts, including sponges and mops, which offer handy transportation for bacteria. Surfaces with the lowest contamination included the headboard, curtain rods and the bathroom door handle.

Holy hotel, Batman, what’s a traveler to do?

Fuggedaboudit, suggested Andrew Bender, writing on Forbes.com. “The viral spread over the last few days of a study on bacteria in hotel rooms has left me a little queasy. Not from the germs, but from the hype.

“…Try examining the story under the microscope.”

Despite such search engine-grabbing headlines as “Hotel rooms often contaminated with fecal matter,” Bender claimed, there’s no story here. That’s because of the more than 4.8 million hotel rooms in the United States, the researchers examined exactly … 9. Three rooms in one hotel in each of Texas, Indiana and South Carolina.

“That’s 0.000187 percent of the hotel rooms in America,” Bender reported, “and results varied from room to room. It would be comparable to saying that the combined citizenry of Chicago, Dallas and San Jose (about 4.84 million) was all, say, fans of the Kardashians, based on asking three people living on one block in each city.”

Not quite, but his point is well taken. Hotel rooms actually might be little germ factories with the potential to make you sick. But we can’t tell from this study. (The researchers, by the way, did acknowledge the limited nature of their work.)

“I’m all for hygiene,” said Bender, “but I think the fear-mongering based on such a self-admittedly inconclusive study was kind of inexcusable.”

One study with a sample so small you can barely see it with the naked eye does not a scientific conclusion draw.

Still. A lot of people have trafficked through your hotel room, and who knows how many of them are sneezing into their hands, then clicking the remote to watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? It couldn’t hurt to take a packet of sanitary wipes on your next trip…

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