Hotel Rooms Swarming With Nasty Bacteria
June 18, 2012

Hotel Rooms Swarming With Nasty Bacteria

Lawrence LeBlond for

Perhaps the next time you´re on vacation and plan to stay at a local hotel, you may want to stock up on hand sanitizer and a CDC-issue bio-hazard suit and mask, as you are likely stepping into a biological war zone of human filth.

A new study by researchers from the University of Houston has found that surfaces, including the light switch and TV remote, are among the most contaminated parts of any hotel room you may consider staying at.

Lead researcher Katie Kirsch and colleagues measured germs on everything from bathroom sinks to curtain rods at nine different hotels in three states (Texas, Indiana, South Carolina), with the aim to boost cleaning practices at hotels, motels and inns all around the country.

Presenting the findings at the 2012 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, Kirsch noted that the current industry standard of visual assessment, which states that if it looks clean, it is clean, is not good enough anymore.

“Hoteliers have an obligation to provide their guests with a safe and secure environment. Currently, housekeeping practices vary across brands and properties with little or no standardization industry wide,” said Kirsch. “The current validation method for hotel room cleanliness is a visual assessment, which has been shown to be ineffective in measuring levels of sanitation.”

“A visual assessment can´t tell you about bacteria and viruses,” she told “It can tell you what´s on the surface, but not if it´s been disinfected.”

For the study, the team collected samples from 19 different surfaces in each hotel room, testing them for aerobic bacteria which include germs known to cause illnesses, such as streptococcus and staphylococcus. They also tested for the fecal bacteria coliform.

The team measured colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria per cubic centimeter squared. They found that light switches were among the top offenders having 122.7 CFU for aerobic bacteria, and 111.1 CFU for fecal bacteria. The TV remote had an average 67.6 CFU, and the telephone had 20.2 CFU.

To put these measurements into perspective, hospitals suggest that 5 CFU is the highest limit acceptable, JoNel Aleccia of reported.

Kirsch, enlisting the help of researchers at Purdue University and the University of South Carolina, found that the least contaminated surfaces were headboards, curtain rods and, surprisingly, bathroom door handles.

Contact with contaminated surfaces is a possible mode of transmission of illness during outbreaks in hotels. And the lack of cleanliness in many hotel rooms poses an elevated risk for guests, especially those with already-compromised immunities.

The big problem is that in most large hotels, housekeepers each have 14 to 16 rooms to clean in an 8-hour shift, spending about 30 minutes on each room, giving them not nearly enough time to appropriately sanitize every room they encounter. However, “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,” said Kirsch.

Kirsch noted that although the findings can be viewed as shocking and disgusting, it shouldn´t deter people from staying in hotels, since most people´s immune systems are capable of staving off bacterial attacks.

“It´s not a scare thing,” Jay Neal, an assistant professor in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant management, told Aleccia. But, “when you´re in a hotel room, there´s that stranger factor,” he added, noting that nobody wants to inherit fecal bacteria from the guy down the hall.

Kirsch´s 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 NASA, this system is meant to present a preventive approach that identifies potential physical, chemical and biological hazards and designs measurements to reduce these risks to safe levels.

While the researchers found high levels of bacteria in the hotel rooms themselves, they found even higher levels in the housekeepers´ carts. Sponges, mops, rags and gloves all had extremely high levels of bacteria, posing a substantial risk for cross-contamination of rooms. The sponge alone, had an average of 500 CFU of aerobic and fecal bacteria.

Kirsch said the study did not look to see if the bacteria detected would cause disease, but did say the contamination levels are a reliable indicator of overall cleanliness. She warned that the study is only preliminary and is limited by the sample size. Even so, she hopes that the study will open the eyes of hotel owners and managers, who could adopt better cleaning practices for their rooms.

Some hotels may be getting the message. Best Western, for example, now equips their housekeepers with black light testers allowing them to detect unseen bugs, and also offer sanitary wraps for TV remotes.

And Hampton Inns have launched commercials featuring a hotel guest wearing a Hazmat suit.

Kirsch said travelers can also take matters into their own hands and bring sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer with them as a precautionary measure. “It would make consumers feel better to wipe down the surfaces.”