How to navigate an unsanitary world

By JILL SCHENSUL
The Record 3/21/10

It’s time we talk dirty.

Time to trot out the four-letter words nobody wants to see in a family newspaper:GERM, PEST, BUGS, YUCK. And, of course, the F-word. FILTH.

Maybe because I spent my childhood as an asthmatic in emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, I grew up to be keenly aware of germs and the spread of disease. As a travel writer, however, I realized that I’d either better stop thinking about these invisible lurking critters or I’d quickly lose my mind.

Because when I think of the germ situation for travelers, I think of the Alien Cantina in “Star Wars,” with weird beings from around the universe all coming together for a party. Hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurants, airplanes, cruise ships, tour buses, you name it: Wherever you’re sitting and putting your hands right now, other people – with germs all their own – have been there before you. All contributing to the primordial Petri dish of pernicious pathogens.

What you don’t know

So I realized I had to stop thinking about the possibilities that microbes were lurking hither and yon, because, for the most part, everyone doesn’t catch hideous diseases when they travel.

And I figured that The Powers That Be were watching out for travelers’ health, ensuring some standards of cleanliness and safety for the general public. The only regularly standardized national reporting on health and cleanliness inspections is aboard cruise ships, thanks to the Vessel Sanitation Program (cdc.gov/nceh/vsp) conducted by the Coast Guard, under the Public Health Service Act.

Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to health standards, for tourism, it can also be dangerous. Regulations governing health and cleanliness in most of the places travelers frequent vary by state and city — and by country. Often, they’re too general to be of much use. Enforcement – in the form of regular inspections and fines for unhealthy conditions — is alarmingly lax. In fact, with the current budget cuts and belt tightening, the situation is getting worse. In Kansas, for instance, the Department of Agriculture announced in December it will no longer perform hotel inspections of the 885 properties it licenses.

The department suggests that travelers go to online sites such as tripadvisor.com to get reviews of individual hotels.

I try not to think too hard about this. But lately, it’s been necessary to take at least a few moments to consider some developments in the worlds of travel and germs – worlds that, all too often, collide.

Making a list

First, we have the release of the fifth annual Top 10 “Dirtiest Hotels” in America list, compiled by TripAdvisor.com. Actually, I don’t know how they managed to limit the list to a mere 10. It does, as Christine Petersen, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor, notes, reveal “that unfortunately, some hotels take the notion of offering dirt cheap rooms far too literally.”

While I sometimes find TripAdvisor’s opinions too all-over-the-place to get any sort of consensus, a full 80 percent of people who stayed at the No. 1 hotel on the list, the Heritage Marina in San Francisco, agreed it was a nightmare, with bugs, mold and stenches reminiscent of the subway.

Now let’s discuss bedbugs. It’s a serious problem. As Michael F. Potter, extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, notes, “Bedbugs have made a serious comeback in North America over the past few years,” especially in big cities like Toronto, San Francisco and New York. What’s more, he says, “increasing international travel has also contributed to sharp rises in bedbug activity around the globe.”

A nightmare waiting to happen. Especially when “general housecleaning measures, such as vacuuming floors and surfaces, seldom reach the places where bedbugs hide,” Potter says.

Roll the videotape

You may also want to keep in mind some hidden-camera footage from 2007 showing how housekeeping at a few chain hotels “cleaned” the glasses you get in your hotel room – the ones with the little paper hats on them to signal they are clean and ready for use. In some cases, used (i.e., dirty) glasses were simply sprayed with some sort of liquid cleaning agent labeled “Do Not Drink” or were rinsed off by staffers still wearing the rubber gloves used moments earlier to clean the toilet bowl.

In some instances, hotels have gone back to the ecologically less-PC plastic disposable glasses. In some cases, perhaps they have invested more in better training and incentives for their housekeepers and paid for better training so those glasses really are cleaner.

Who knows? What is certain is that hotel rooms are used so often and have so many surfaces to clean that they are ripe for germ spreading. Some spots are more obvious than others — from the TV remote to the alarm clock by the bed to the doorknobs, toilet flusher, sheets and bedspread (no, it’s not washed after every visit).

That toilet paper triangle, for instance, a little origami-esque sign from your well-intentioned housekeeper, telling you all is well and clean in your bathroom.

“What the [expletive deleted] is that all about?” muses Anne LaGrange Loving, a microbiologist and professor at Passaic County Community College.

B.Y.O. pillowcase

Loving, who has researched the germ factor on everything from communion wine cups to the lemons that waitresses adorn your soda with, has turned her attention to the toilet paper triangle. Though it’s way too soon for definite answers, Loving says it’s obvious that the folks who’ve been cleaning your bathroom have put their hands on your toilet paper next.

I cannot imagine what travel must be like for Loving, who seems to have found enough scientific evidence for some of my worst – dismissed as neurotic – fears. (The second stall in the public restroom – no matter how many stalls there are – is the most used, Loving says. Just something to keep in mind.)

Loving says she always inspects the sheets. (“I have been in hotels — clearly, they’re dirty, there are hairs on them …”) She doesn’t use the ice machine or the ice bucket. She throws away the beginning of the roll of triangled toilet paper, lets the shower run awhile before using it, and wouldn’t think of bathing in a hotel tub.

While it’s probably impractical to take along your own sheets, she says, it’s not unreasonable to bring your own pillowcases. “After all, you’ve got seven places, when you lay your head down, where germs can enter your body,” Loving says.

Let’s clear the air

Getting information can be frustrating at best, an exercise in futility at worst. Just try finding out about airplane air.

Over the years, I have looked for solid information on the state of airplane air. I look because sometimes I’ve noticed I get sick after being on a plane. Or a friend of mine gets sick after flying. So I think, What’s the commonality here? Call me nutty, but sometimes sitting in a closed environment for 12 hours, and listening to other people sneezing and coughing, gives me pause.

Yet I am assured, time and again, about the cleanliness of airplane air. In fact, I have been assured, and read information – usually supplied by folks with an agenda –that airplane air is “cleaner than hospital air.”

“Well, that’s a stupid benchmark,” Loving says. “Most air is cleaner than hospital air.” And though it’s difficult to get quantitative information about the quality of air aloft, Loving points out that “the longer you’re up there, the more chance you have of catching something.”

Air infection

A recent study found that of 1,000 passengers traveling between San Francisco and Denver, 20 percent came down with a respiratory illness within two weeks of flying. In a better-known example from 2003, one coughing passenger on a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing infected 22 other people on board with the SARS virus. Five died.

One of the reasons planes are such good incubators for illness is that their ventilation systems recirculate air, which means the germs get around. To make you more vulnerable, the cabin pressure dries out mucous membranes, leaving them more susceptible to infection.

It’s not just a matter of sneeze-and-cough diseases, either. There are times when circulating “bleed air” (fresh air compressed by the engines that is sent into the cabin) may contain chemical contaminants – mostly oil — creating a so-called “fume event.” A report in the Wall Street Journal last summer said that while airline companies and jet manufacturers call such events “rare,” when they do occur, air quality still exceeds safety standards (like, better than a hospital’s air). But unions representing pilots and flight attendants say the chemicals entering the cabin can endanger the health of flight crews and passengers.

Some unions have begun warning members of potential respiratory and neurological dangers.

In 2008, a panel of aviation experts recommended voluntary standards for onboard air circulation, lower ozone exposure, new monitoring for contaminated air from oil or hydraulic fluid leaks and limits on pesticides used on planes. But (surprise!) aviation regulators and airlines have yet to act.

“It’s frustrating, because these issues are important for crew members and for passengers and should have been addressed a long time ago,” says Judith Murawski, a cabin-air-quality expert for the Association of Flight Attendants.

The problem, of course, starts with the “request” for “voluntary” standards. Isn’t the FAA supposed to be watching out for us?

If you believe that, I’ve got a roll of toilet paper, untouched by human hands, I’d like to sell you.

E-mail: schensul@northjersey.com

Top 10 dirtiest U.S. hotels

Here is this year’s list of the infamously filthy, fetid and cruddy – an annual service (now in its fifth year) brought to you by TripAdvisor.com (along with some of the choice comments):

1. Heritage Marina Hotel, San Francisco — “When we woke in the middle of the night to find BEDBUGS all over the bed, we ended up sleeping in our rental car!”

2. Days Inn Eureka/Six Flags, Eureka, Mo. — “If Hell had a hotel, it would be something like this. … Dirty towels, dirty room. Rude manager.”

3. Tropicana Resort Hotel, Virginia Beach, Va. — “The entire hotel is very dirty and smells very bad; it looks like a ghost house. We called the Virginia Beach Health Department and filed a complaint.”

4. Super 8 Virginia Beach/At the Ocean, Virginia Beach, Va. — “Upon checking in, there were hairs in the bathtub, and bugs on the counter. … The streets are cleaner.”

5. Quality Inn, Stroudsburg, Pa. — “I was scared to sleep in the bed. Just looking at it made me want to itch.”

6. New York Inn, Manhattan — “We were greeted on our arrival by a cleaner sitting on our bed, smoking and watching TV.”

7. Parisian Hotel & Suites, Miami Beach, Fla. — “I had been bitten on my chin several times, my hands, forearms, legs and feet. At least 15 percent of my body was covered in red, burning bites.”

8. Capistrano Seaside Inn, Capistrano Beach, Calif. — “We spilled water on the floor and cleaned it, and the towel turned brown from all the dirt.”

9. Desert Lodge, Palm Springs, Calif. — “Mold smell and bugs! … Dirty sheets, and bathtub was gross.”

10. Continental Oceanfront Hotel South Beach, Miami Beach, Fla. — “There was so much mold and dirt in the rooms, our tub had a huge hole with some nasty ‘patch’ over it. I felt more dirty getting out of the shower than getting in.”

t’s time we talk dirty.

Time to trot out the four-letter words nobody wants to see in a family newspaper:GERM, PEST, BUGS, YUCK. And, of course, the F-word. FILTH.

Healthful habits

“Don’t drink the water” is just the tip of the travel iceberg, as far as avoiding germs is concerned. We’ve collected some good advice from various sources to help you stay healthy.

* BYO … pillowcase.

* Inspect those hotel sheets. If they look suspect, demand they be changed.

* That triangle of toilet paper? Tear it off and throw it out, along with another couple of sheets. Roll down to the place where other human hands haven’t already been.

* No matter what you touch, keep your hands away from your face and mouth.

* Bring antibacterial hand cleanser and use it often.

* Don’t use the airplane blankets and pillows. Bring your own, or nap on a rolled-up coat.

* Avoid making contact with public toilets.

* Don’t take a bath in a public facility.

* Wear shower shoes.

* Avoid public hot tubs like the plague.

* Disinfectant spray is your friend. Use it on iffy surfaces in hotels. (They’ll probably arrest you if you try spraying things on planes; use disinfectant wipes.)

* Avoid touching banisters in hotels and on cruise ships.

* Many cruise lines place antibacterial liquids in strategic places on ships. Use often.

Maybe because I spent my childhood as an asthmatic in emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, I grew up to be keenly aware of germs and the spread of disease. As a travel writer, however, I realized that I’d either better stop thinking about these invisible lurking critters or I’d quickly lose my mind.

Because when I think of the germ situation for travelers, I think of the Alien Cantina in “Star Wars,” with weird beings from around the universe all com-

ing together for a party. Hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurants, airplanes, cruise ships, tour buses, you name it: Wherever you’re sitting and putting your hands right now, other people – with germs all their own – have been there before you. All contributing to the primordial Petri dish of pernicious pathogens.

What you don’t know

So I realized I had to stop thinking about the possibilities that microbes were lurking hither and yon, because, for the most part, everyone doesn’t catch hideous diseases when they travel.

And I figured that The Powers That Be were watching out for travelers’ health, ensuring some standards of cleanliness and safety for the general public. The only regularly standardized national reporting on health and cleanliness inspections is aboard cruise ships, thanks to the Vessel Sanitation Program (cdc.gov/nceh/vsp) conducted by the Coast Guard, under the Public Health Service Act.

Ignorance may be bliss, but when it comes to health standards, for tourism, it can also be dangerous. Regulations governing health and cleanliness in most of the places travelers frequent vary by state and city — and by country. Often, they’re too general to be of much use. Enforcement – in the form of regular inspections and fines for unhealthy conditions — is alarmingly lax. In fact, with the current budget cuts and belt tightening, the situation is getting worse. In Kansas, for instance, the Department of Agriculture announced in December it will no longer perform hotel inspections of the 885 properties it licenses.

The department suggests that travelers go to online sites such as tripadvisor.com to get reviews of individual hotels.

I try not to think too hard about this. But lately, it’s been necessary to take at least a few moments to consider some developments in the worlds of travel and germs – worlds that, all too often, collide.

Making a list

First, we have the release of the fifth annual Top 10 “Dirtiest Hotels” in America list, compiled by TripAdvisor.com. Actually, I don’t know how they managed to limit the list to a mere 10. It does, as Christine Petersen, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor, notes, reveal “that unfortunately, some hotels take the notion of offering dirt cheap rooms far too literally.”

While I sometimes find TripAdvisor’s opinions too all-over-the-place to get any sort of consensus, a full 80 percent of people who stayed at the No. 1 hotel on the list, the Heritage Marina in San Francisco, agreed it was a nightmare, with bugs, mold and stenches reminiscent of the subway.

Now let’s discuss bedbugs. It’s a serious problem. As Michael F. Potter, extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, notes, “Bedbugs have made a serious comeback in North America over the past few years,” especially in big cities like Toronto, San Francisco and New York. What’s more, he says, “increasing international travel has also contributed to sharp rises in bedbug activity around the globe.”

A nightmare waiting to happen. Especially when “general housecleaning measures, such as vacuuming floors and surfaces, seldom reach the places where bedbugs hide,” Potter says.

Roll the videotape

You may also want to keep in mind some hidden-camera footage from 2007 showing how housekeeping at a few chain hotels “cleaned” the glasses you get in your hotel room – the ones with the little paper hats on them to signal they are clean and ready for use. In some cases, used (i.e., dirty) glasses were simply sprayed with some sort of liquid cleaning agent labeled “Do Not Drink” or were rinsed off by staffers still wearing the rubber gloves used moments earlier to clean the toilet bowl.

In some instances, hotels have gone back to the ecologically less-PC plastic disposable glasses. In some cases, perhaps they have invested more in better training and incentives for their housekeepers and paid for better training so those glasses really are cleaner.

Who knows? What is certain is that hotel rooms are used so often and have so many surfaces to clean that they are ripe for germ spreading. Some spots are more obvious than others — from the TV remote to the alarm clock by the bed to the doorknobs, toilet flusher, sheets and bedspread (no, it’s not washed after every visit).

That toilet paper triangle, for instance, a little origami-esque sign from your well-intentioned housekeeper, telling you all is well and clean in your bathroom.

“What the [expletive deleted] is that all about?” muses Anne LaGrange Loving, a microbiologist and professor at Passaic County Community College.

B.Y.O. pillowcase

Loving, who has researched the germ factor on everything from communion wine cups to the lemons that waitresses adorn your soda with, has turned her attention to the toilet paper triangle. Though it’s way too soon for definite answers, Loving says it’s obvious that the folks who’ve been cleaning your bathroom have put their hands on your toilet paper next.

I cannot imagine what travel must be like for Loving, who seems to have found enough scientific evidence for some of my worst – dismissed as neurotic – fears. (The second stall in the public restroom – no matter how many stalls there are – is the most used, Loving says. Just something to keep in mind.)

Loving says she always inspects the sheets. (“I have been in hotels — clearly, they’re dirty, there are hairs on them …”) She doesn’t use the ice machine or the ice bucket. She throws away the beginning of the roll of triangled toilet paper, lets the shower run awhile before using it, and wouldn’t think of bathing in a hotel tub.

While it’s probably impractical to take along your own sheets, she says, it’s not unreasonable to bring your own pillowcases. “After all, you’ve got seven places, when you lay your head down, where germs can enter your body,” Loving says.

Let’s clear the air

Getting information can be frustrating at best, an exercise in futility at worst. Just try finding out about airplane air.

Over the years, I have looked for solid information on the state of airplane air. I look because sometimes I’ve noticed I get sick after being on a plane. Or a friend of mine gets sick after flying. So I think, What’s the commonality here? Call me nutty, but sometimes sitting in a closed environment for 12 hours, and listening to other people sneezing and coughing, gives me pause.

Yet I am assured, time and again, about the cleanliness of airplane air. In fact, I have been assured, and read information – usually supplied by folks with an agenda –that airplane air is “cleaner than hospital air.”

“Well, that’s a stupid benchmark,” Loving says. “Most air is cleaner than hospital air.” And though it’s difficult to get quantitative information about the quality of air aloft, Loving points out that “the longer you’re up there, the more chance you have of catching something.”

Air infection

A recent study found that of 1,000 passengers traveling between San Francisco and Denver, 20 percent came down with a respiratory illness within two weeks of flying. In a better-known example from 2003, one coughing passenger on a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing infected 22 other people on board with the SARS virus. Five died.

One of the reasons planes are such good incubators for illness is that their ventilation systems recirculate air, which means the germs get around. To make you more vulnerable, the cabin pressure dries out mucous membranes, leaving them more susceptible to infection.

It’s not just a matter of sneeze-and-cough diseases, either. There are times when circulating “bleed air” (fresh air compressed by the engines that is sent into the cabin) may contain chemical contaminants – mostly oil — creating a so-called “fume event.” A report in the Wall Street Journal last summer said that while airline companies and jet manufacturers call such events “rare,” when they do occur, air quality still exceeds safety standards (like, better than a hospital’s air). But unions representing pilots and flight attendants say the chemicals entering the cabin can endanger the health of flight crews and passengers.

Some unions have begun warning members of potential respiratory and neurological dangers.

In 2008, a panel of aviation experts recommended voluntary standards for onboard air circulation, lower ozone exposure, new monitoring for contaminated air from oil or hydraulic fluid leaks and limits on pesticides used on planes. But (surprise!) aviation regulators and airlines have yet to act.

“It’s frustrating, because these issues are important for crew members and for passengers and should have been addressed a long time ago,” says Judith Murawski, a cabin-air-quality expert for the Association of Flight Attendants.

The problem, of course, starts with the “request” for “voluntary” standards. Isn’t the FAA supposed to be watching out for us?

If you believe that, I’ve got a roll of toilet paper, untouched by human hands, I’d like to sell you.

E-mail: schensul@northjersey.com

Top 10 dirtiest U.S. hotels

Here is this year’s list of the infamously filthy, fetid and cruddy – an annual service (now in its fifth year) brought to you by TripAdvisor.com (along with some of the choice comments):

1. Heritage Marina Hotel, San Francisco — “When we woke in the middle of the night to find BEDBUGS all over the bed, we ended up sleeping in our rental car!”

2. Days Inn Eureka/Six Flags, Eureka, Mo. — “If Hell had a hotel, it would be something like this. … Dirty towels, dirty room. Rude manager.”

3. Tropicana Resort Hotel, Virginia Beach, Va. — “The entire hotel is very dirty and smells very bad; it looks like a ghost house. We called the Virginia Beach Health Department and filed a complaint.”

4. Super 8 Virginia Beach/At the Ocean, Virginia Beach, Va. — “Upon checking in, there were hairs in the bathtub, and bugs on the counter. … The streets are cleaner.”

5. Quality Inn, Stroudsburg, Pa. — “I was scared to sleep in the bed. Just looking at it made me want to itch.”

6. New York Inn, Manhattan — “We were greeted on our arrival by a cleaner sitting on our bed, smoking and watching TV.”

7. Parisian Hotel & Suites, Miami Beach, Fla. — “I had been bitten on my chin several times, my hands, forearms, legs and feet. At least 15 percent of my body was covered in red, burning bites.”

8. Capistrano Seaside Inn, Capistrano Beach, Calif. — “We spilled water on the floor and cleaned it, and the towel turned brown from all the dirt.”

9. Desert Lodge, Palm Springs, Calif. — “Mold smell and bugs! … Dirty sheets, and bathtub was gross.”

10. Continental Oceanfront Hotel South Beach, Miami Beach, Fla. — “There was so much mold and dirt in the rooms, our tub had a huge hole with some nasty ‘patch’ over it. I felt more dirty getting out of the shower than getting in.”

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