Ramiro Hernandez, local Executive Housekeeper uses a disinfectant cleaner in all his rooms at the Wyndham Indianapolis West Hotel. We all must push to keep our rooms clean and safe for our staff, and guests.
From the desk in a hotel room being home to 400 times more bacteria than the toilet, to 10 per cent of the pillow being made of dust mites and their poo, there are some shocking facts you may not know about the typical hotel room.
The Healthy Hotels Program, which provides hotels in Australia and New Zealand with certification of their health and hygiene standards, explores the often overlooked facts to find out just how much hotels can affect health.
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“Health threats, germs and diseases are easiest to consider in order of how they reach our body. They are categorised by things we touch, the air we breathe and ‘auxiliary’ factors. Touch transmission remains the most common means of infection. Many viruses and bacteria are transmitted this way from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) to the common cold.
In the guest room, door handles, swipe keys, carpet, glasses, light switches, remotes, key board, furniture, bedding, curtains, taps and fittings, the toilet, shower, ice bucket, refrigerator, chair, bed and pillows each present a potential for transmission.
The desk in a hotel room will be home to 400 times more bacteria than the toilet, the reason being that most toilets are disinfected, while furniture typically is not.
Equally one of the greatest potential threats to health in the guest room is the air we breathe. Human lungs are designed for exchange of gases and are comprised of a cellular surface area equivalent to the size of a tennis court. Oxygen passes over the membranes and directly into the bloodstream, as often do many contaminants with it. The resting adult will inhale between 10,000 to 20,000 liters of air per day including sleeping time, where the face and mouth are pressed directly onto the pillow.
Air can be home to any number of micro contaminants including mold spores, fine dust, pollen and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Some of the most dangerous air borne pollutants which are also the easiest to avoid, are air fresheners, pesticides and many conventional cleaning products.
The most common VOC sources in the guest room are cleaning chemical residue and the byproduct of a process called ‘off-gassing’. Typical of newer building materials such as fresh carpets or furniture, gases from the glues, sealants and coloring agents can leech into the air for a period of time, often being mistaken for that fresh new carpet smell.
Overall, any substance which is not considered toxic to the touch must be considered completely differently if inhaled. Only 30 per cent of contaminants inhaled are ever exhaled, the remainder are broken down by the body, usually within the liver.
Other auxiliary factors which have a bearing on our health and experience in the guest room include sleep habits, nutrition and electromagnetic fields (emf’s) which are often higher due to the presence of more electrical items per square meter than in a typical home. Wireless internet, mobile phones, microwaves and proximity to power outlets are just a few of the exposure points in the hotel room where we are likely to encounter emf’s.
While research in many areas remains divided and is almost always controversial, the evidence points to one common theme when considering emf’s and that is, the less you are exposed to, the better. Nutrition and hydration while in the guest room are areas where common sense has the opportunity to prevail, however the subject of sleep hygiene is still largely under publicized.
Exposure to bright light such as direct room lighting and device screens after sundown has been found to impact the level of melanin released within the body. This in turn can result in difficulty getting to sleep and a reduced sleep quality.
There’s no avoiding the fact that any indoor environment which is home to human activity will ultimately be contaminated with the presence of human proteins, body fluids, bacteria and most likely the presence of mould and dust mites.
The average hotel bed will be home to more than 1370 people over a five-year period. We shed up to 3.6 kilograms of skin each year and an average bed can contain anywhere from 100,000 to 2,000,000 dust mites.
The Ohio State University entomology department says the weight of a two-year-old pillow can be comprised of up to 10 per cent dust mites and their excrement. In addition, carpets and beds which are not regularly or correctly sanitized have been found to contain high concentrations of mold spores and bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli).
To add to the equation, when examined with black light most hotel room bed heads or head walls have been found to show evidence of human proteins.
While it’s the ‘germ statistics’ that form the common rhetoric and always have, guests and hoteliers alike deserve to know the difference between the ‘gross factor’ and the elements which are more likely to cause potentially serious health concerns. It’s unrealistic for any guest room not to show evidence of human habitation, however the presence of VOC’s such as certain mold spores and chemical compounds within the air and furnishings should be taken far more seriously due to the demonstrated health implications they can represent from both short and long term exposure.
While the desk and television remote are commonly known to contain higher bacteria counts, the items which are most likely to harbor more harmful VOC’s, particularly where they can be inhaled, are the mattress and pillows. The warm, dark and moist climate is ideal for not only allergens such as dust mites, but also mold. Mold along with mold spores, is more prolific than what is commonly understood. It is almost always present and by comparison is rarely visible.
Certain species of mold represent arguably the greatest and most common threat to respiratory health in any guest room. Although the number is improving, comparatively few accommodation operators sanitize their beds and carpets correctly if at all, making these areas a haven for basic allergens and bacteria, through to potentially dangerous VOC’s.
For the most part, the environment is the responsibility of the operator to manage on behalf of the guest. Creating a healthy environment doesn't need to involve expensive measures, simply educated maintenance practices.
If you’re a guest, there are several things you can do to have confidence before your stay:
• Ask about sanitizing practice before booking. Are the beds, pillows and carpets sanitized and if so, is it with a low moisture process or with steam which is counter-productive?
• Ask if housekeeping typically use bleach-based products or are there other safer alternatives in place such as vinegar or cloth cleaning?
• Ask if the property has their air quality measured regularly.
• Take your own pillow, have it either professionally sanitised or at the very least, vacuum it and leave it in direct sunlight for an hour.
• Ask if there’s an independent health certification in place.
During your stay:
• Open the windows if possible — fresh air is best.
• Wash hands regularly and avoid touching the nose, eyes or mouth unnecessarily.
• Wipe down items and switches with a disinfecting wipe.
• Take your own drinking water or boil the water and let it stand for a while.
• Turn off and unplug unnecessary devices, particularly before bed.
• Stay hydrated and be mindful to consume foods (preferably raw) with antioxidants such as most berries, prunes, apples and green tea.
• Avoid bright lights and device screens an hour before bed
Other hotel health woes:
Legionnaires Disease is an increasing threat in all indoor environments, it’s common in water and thrives in warm temperatures. Contrary to popular belief, the most common form of infection is through inhalation, which can occur when infected water from the hot water system is aerosolised such as when a shower head creates a finer spray of water. Typical symptoms are comparable to a severe ‘flu’ including fever, acute headache, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains and sometimes a dry cough.
Noroviruses cause intestinal infections which in turn lead to common symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, chills, muscle aches and diarrhea. Noroviruses can be transmitted through infected surfaces, airborne particles, infected food or drink and direct contact with infected persons. Unfortunately, noroviruses as well as many common bacteria such as e-coli are resistant to hand sanitizes of ALL varieties. Washing the hands frequently with running water and soap where possible is still the next best prevention for infection from noroviruses as well as other pathogens.
Bed bugs are among the greatest of the traveler ‘paranoia’s’ however they aren't typically a result of poor guest room hygiene. Often confused with dust mites which are not visible to the naked eye, bed bugs are typically 4-5mm in length and are a hitchhiking insect which commonly travels within suitcases.
They hibernate during the day and at night track the carbon monoxide in human breath to locate a source of food. Once on the body, they draw blood from the skin much like a mosquito, before returning to their dwelling place which could be anywhere from a power point to a picture frame. Human reactions vary from nil response to the emergence of large red itchy welts.
Look on the mattress seams for signs of mudding or dark black spots.
Mold particle and spore inhalation
Healthy Hotels Program Toxicologist Dr Peter Dingle refers to mold as the asbestos of the new generation. Molds vary in how they affect human health and implications typically result from exposure to higher volumes of mold spores and particles. However some species produce mycotoxins which are highly potent.
The lighter effects of mold exposure include nasal congestion, coughing, itching, wheezing, aggravation of skin and respiratory allergies, fever and headache. Moderate effects include lowered blood pressure, rapid and strained breathing, dizziness, abdominal pains, increased heart rate, asthma and chronic bronchitis. Severe effects which vary based on exposure time and species can include potentially fatal anaphylactic shock, liver cancer and pulmonary fibrosis.
General exposure will often lead to a greater susceptibility to colds and lower respiratory tract infections. The effects of mold and dampness on the health of children have been found to be comparable to those of passive smoking.
Want to stay healthy on your next trip?
Are you travelling for leisure or business in the near future? Healthy Hotels Certification can make sure your stay is healthy. Mention the property name and location you are staying at and the Healthy Hotels Program will contact them on your behalf to make sure you are covered — click here. Have you got a favorite hotel or accommodation that you would love to nominate for Healthy Hotels Certification? Tell us the about it here.