The Price of Cleanliness

ABC News tested nine Los Angeles hotel rooms for germs.

Feb. 11, 2008 — -- When it comes to hotel cleanliness, star ratings and prices may have little to do with how hygienic a room is.

Tune in to Good Morning America on February 12th to for a special under cover investigation of hotel germs and watch hotel maids caught on camera.

ABC News conducted an experiment to see whether more money means fewer germs. We checked into nine Los Angeles-area hotels; three were inexpensive, three were medium-priced and three were high-end.

Administering the Test

Microbiologist Chuck Gerba conducted germ tests in the hotel rooms, which varied in price from $98 to $500 per night. In each, we swabbed the same nine items.

"The biggest concern in a hotel room is picking up cold, flu virus or viruses that cause diarrhea," Gerba said. "It doesn't take very many to make you ill."

Gerba tested toilets, sinks, drinking glasses and even irons for germs. The results varied greatly and six of the nine bathroom sinks tested had germ levels considered excessive. One three-star hotel had a lower level of bacteria, but still turned up fecal coliform and MRSA, a serious germ known to cause severe skin infections.

Hidden Germs

One place hotel guests may not think about when it comes to germs is the room-service menu, a hotel-room staple.

At one swanky five-star hotel, the experiment uncovered high levels of bacteria on the menu, but the others tested clean.

"They flip through the pages. They put their fingers here. So, you are more likely to find something here," Gerba said of the menus.

Another place where germs can hide out is the ice bucket. One bucket at a Beverly Hills three-star hotel had five times the amount of germs Gerba considered acceptable. At some less expensive hotels, the levels were much lower.

And there weren't many germs on keys or irons in any hotel tested.

In the Bathroom

And if you thought toilets might be one of the germiest things in a hotel? Turns out, whether it was a $98 toilet or a $500 throne, the germ count was not much greater than the toilets in your home.

However, the same couldn't be said of the hair dryer.

"There must be some things you can do with a hair dryer that I am not aware of because some of them were pretty germy," Gerba said.

State codes mandate drinking glasses be sanitized, but there are few laws that detail how and when other items should be disinfected.

"You have to be very careful in the use of your disinfectants, your cleaning tools, and where you wipe and what you wipe so you don't really move germs around. You don't want to give them a free ride around the hotel room," Gerba said. Gerba stressed that the way hotel housekeepers do their job could have a big impact on room cleanliness.

"The issue isn't germs. The issue is, is there an unusual situation that makes people likely to have something transmitted," said Los Angeles County public health director Jonathan Fielding.

But those in the hotel industry downplay the risks of germs and said hotel owners know they need to keep things clean or they're likely to lose business.

"Roughly 4 million people sleep in hotels every day and there are very, very few cases of anybody catching any type of a disease from staying in a hotel," said Joe McInerney, of the American Hotel and Lodging Association

Protect Yourself From Potential Bacteria

Gerba said patrons should remember: Just because something looks clean doesn't mean it is clean. Some of the items often found in lower priced hotels, like plastic cups in wrappers or plastic bags for the ice buckets, can offer germ protection.

Representatives from the hotels ABC News tested said they were grateful for the information. They added the issue of germs was high on their priority list, and one five-star hotel said it planned to switch from glass to sealed plastic cups.