Sunday, August 5, 2018

It's a dirty world

     The Best Western in San Dimas, east of Los Angeles, is probably one of the nicest mid-price motels I've ever stayed it, with its red tile roof and palm trees and sparkling courtyard pool.     
     But what really caught my attention, as a fan of motel hype, was this little TV remote control caddy trumpeting "CLEAN WORLD" and "CLEAN REMOTE." I've written before about Hampton Inns ballyhooing their clean sheets, but this seemed catering to a new, very specific concern: all those grubby fingers of former guests smearing against these plastic buttons.  
     I vaguely remembered where this had come from. A 2012 University of Houston study claiming that hotel remote controls are particularly filthy, along with bedside lamp switches.
     They are, though only marginally more than the rest of the room. The study looked at 18 separate areas in hotel rooms, and found fecal matter on 81 percent of all surfaces.
     My bias approaching this topic was that the world is a dirty place, and that, dirty as they no doubt are, hotel rooms are still probably a lot cleaner than their guests' homes, because while they get used a lot more, they also get cleaned a lot more. 
     Not true, according to a quick review of the literature, such as Hotel Hygiene Exposed, a report that found, "the average hotel room appears to be dirtier than a typical home, an airplane, and even a school."
     Even a school. That's pretty dirty, particularly a Chicago school. The report suggested a few common sense practices: not just the obvious wiping down surfaces with antibacterial wipes, which though wise, seems such a fussy way to begin your stay, but also refraining from setting your toothbrush down directly on bathroom counters, one of the dirtiest spots in a hotel room. 
     In general, I administer a generous dose of trying-not-to-think-about-it to these situations, though I do make a point of opening the doors to exit public bathrooms with a paper towel or, in a pinch, my handkerchief, though it then goes back into my pocket to be clamped over my face later so what's the point? (Many people seem to view handkerchiefs themselves as disgusting, a reminder that hygiene is in the eye of the beholder, sometimes quite literally). 
     The world is a dirty place, and spritzing the bathroom counter in your hotel room with Lysol seems a few steps on the path to wearing a white paper mask and cotton gloves in public, the way women do in Asia.
     If I seem unusually passive, resigned to mucking around in the ordure of a freshly-cleaned motel room, remember: I've read "The Secret House: 24 Hours in the Strange and Unexpected World in Which We Spend our Nights and Days" by David Bodanis (Simon & Schuster, 1986) a rollicking look at our homes on a microscopic level.
    It begins with one of the better openings of any science book I've ever read: "From the alarm clock a spherical shock wave traveling at Mach 1 starts growing outward, spreading and spreading till it hits the wall. Some of the energy it carries causes the curtains over the window to heat up from the friction of the onslaught; much of the rest rebounds back, enters the ears of two sleepers, and finally rouses them awake." 
     Soon the sleepy residents are beginning their day, staggering across carpets filed with "mites, thousands and thousands of tiny mites: male mites and female mites and baby mites an even, crunched to the side away from the main conglomerations, the mummified corpses of long-dead old great-grandparent mites. Brethren of theirs stir in the bed too, where they have spent the night snuggling warm and cosy under our sleepers ... it sounds unpleasant, but is quite normal."
    Meaning "nearly 100 per cent of our houses are host to these creatures."
    Cleanliness is in large part an illusion. It helps not to look too closely.
    Late in the book, a dinner guest goes to the bathroom, and what takes place after he flushes the toilet, Bodanis takes the better part of two pages to describe.
     "As a toilet flushes normally most of the water and contents go swirling down the drain but because of all that swirling a certain aerated froth is momentarily created on the topmost layer of the water. It's only a few hundredths of an inch thick, but precisely because it is so thin it's not going to stay where it's created for long. This flush-induced froth separates off from the rest of the water as it does down, hovers briefly in the air and then goes soaring up."
    This cloud of moisture and microscopic fecal matter hits the ceiling, and within minutes is distributed throughout the house, where the microscopic organisms contained within reside for days and weeks, very much alive. "They nestle on the floor and cabinets, on the sink, toothbrush and wall." 
    You get the impression. So yes, motel rooms are somewhat dirtier than everywhere else. But it's really just a question of degree. The house you're in right now is infected with bacteria, fungi, molds, viruses, amoebae, micro-creatures of all description, filth of every variety. The surfaces, the air. You know what turns out to be a prime location for bacteria to thrive? Somewhere moist, craggy and nutrient rich. Any guesses? 
     Your face. Frankly, I'm not sure if the specially-scrubbed TV remote is less a symbol of your host's meticulous care and more an unwelcome reminder of just how messy our lives really are. I'm generally a fan of vigorous cogitation, but here is one area where I truly believe, it's better not to think too much about it. 
Used with permission. 


  1. What I worry about is, when they're cleaning the remote and the duvet cover, what basics are they forgetting about? I recently stayed at a fancy high-price hotel where one member of my group was upgraded to a top-floor suite. My friend opened a drawer in one of the many pieces of excess furniture and found two slices of leftover pizza. Question # 1 is, who puts pizza in the dresser drawer when there's a fridge in the room? but question # 2 is, should or shouldn't housekeeping check the drawers to see if the previous guest left something horrible or valuable there?

  2. "This cloud of moisture and microscopic fecal matter hits the ceiling, and within minutes is distributed throughout the house, where the microscopic organisms contained within reside for days and weeks, very much alive." Good MORNIN', Chicago! Dear, dear Jesus...

  3. Close the toilet lid before flushing!

    Cleaning is good for the soul.

    Turn off the AC open the blinds and windows sunlight and fresh air are the enemy of microbes. And reduce your car on footprint .
    Change the furnace filter and vacuum cleaner bag.

    Like our immigrant grand mother did clean your fing home.

    Stay out of hotels the practice usually follows air travel another carbon intensive activity.

    Hotels are where the bed bugs live. They come home with you in your luggage.

  4. I've just added "The Secret House" to my list of 1000 books to avoid reading before I die.

    I recently stayed in four different hotels over the course of eight nights. Three of them had problems with their toilets. The problems ranging from having to jiggle the handle, to phantom tank filling in the middle of the night, to water spraying out of the tank all over the floor. We changed rooms on that last one. Another common problem is a slow running drain in the shower. Yuck!

    1. Phantom tank filling means the flapper is worn out.

    2. Yeah, but, not my toilet, not my problem.

    3. Better a toilet tank that fills than a toilet tank that doesn't...unless you fill the wastebasket with water from the shower and dump it into the tank. Been in 43 states, and I've stayed in some real dumps over the years. Can't remember what state that happened in...probably the State of Decrepitude.

    4. When the power goes out at my cabin, I have to haul buckets of water up from the lake to fill the tank.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.