Analysis of air vents unearthed mould, rust, dust and pathogens, while bacterial tests on ice machines discovered coliforms, a possible sign of fecal contamination.
Traces of coliform bacteria were found on ice machines in each of the six hotel chains tested. One test found a non-deadly strain of E. coli bacteria.
Poor maintenance is giving rise to potentially dangerous bugs, said microbiologist Keith Warriner.
"That's substandard," he said. "That's not what you would expect from a hotel, be it a budget hotel or a high end.
"The minimum standard is to have clean ice, and it's not difficult," he said. "All you have to do is maintain the machine… and it's obvious they're not doing that."
Air vent 'fail'
The tests were part of a sweeping probe into hotel cleanliness by CBC Marketplace.
Thousands of bacterial tests were conducted in dozens of rooms at six hotel chains in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, including budget hotels EconoLodge and Super 8, mid-range hotels Best Western and Holiday Inn and the luxurious Fairmont and Sheraton.
Previous tests uncovered antibiotic-resistant “superbugs," such as C. difficile and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, at every hotel chain. Analysis also determined the top bacterial spots in hotel rooms are “high-touch” surfaces like bed comforters, telephones and remote controls.
Air vents also rated high on the list of areas in a hotel room with high bacterial contamination.
Using an adenosine triphosphate (ATP) meter – which measures microbial contamination on a numerical scale – Warriner found high levels of contamination on multiple air vents, including one that had a "shocking" rating of 202,090.
A reading over 1,000 is commonly considered a "fail."
“[The vent] affects the air you breathe,” Warriner explained. “It's throwing all these bugs out, and essentially you breathe them in, and once they get down into their lungs, that's where these microbes can take over.”
General air unit maintenance could fix the problem, says Warriner.
“[There's] no excuse for that. Just a little bit of maintenance, change the filters, clean off the surface,” he said. “But it hadn't been cleaned for months, surely.”
The microbiologist says potentially hazardous air vents are easy to spot when staying in a hotel room.
“Look for rust and other defects," said Warriner. "That's where the bacteria and moulds and microbes gather. So, if you walk into a hotel room, the first thing that's going to hit you is the smell. So that should give you a first indication."
Housekeepers can’t keep up
Air vents and ice machines point to problems with hotel maintenance, but overtaxed housekeeping staff may be another factor in the unsanitary conditions uncovered by Marketplace.
Canada's hotel housekeeping union aims for a cap of 15 to 16 rooms cleaned per day, allowing approximately 30 minutes per room during an eight-hour shift.
Toronto Sheraton housekeeper Brigida Ruiz says some housekeepers use shortcuts, such as leaving some areas uncleaned or reusing rags to wipe down multiple surfaces, because the target of 30 minutes per room isn't enough time for a thorough cleaning job.
“That's the reason why the room attendants are doing the shortcuts, and not doing it properly,” she said. “Too many rooms and too much pressure."
Bruno Wall of the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre says its staff doesn’t face undue pressure.
“We are telling staff, 'Take the time you need to do the job right,' " said Wall.
But Ruiz counters that many staff do take the time – the unpaid time.
“They will stay an extra hour just to finish without getting paid," said Ruiz. "That's the kind of pressure the management are giving to the room attendants and housekeeping.”
Marketplace contacted all six chains involved in the tests. Best Western, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Fairmont and Super 8 responded with written statements saying they will take any necessary action to improve cleanliness and guest safety.
Tim Oldfield, EconoLodge’s managing director of franchise performance, agreed to an on-camera interview and said he was “disappointed” by the findings.
"[It] suggests that we need to re-visit our housekeeping practices, specifically at these hotels,” he admitted.
Sheraton hotels pledged specific action on mouldy air vents and also vowed regular maintenance of ice machines.
Best Western also pointed out that housekeeping staff are now equipped with ultraviolet wands used to kill germs.
The UV light emitting wands are fine, says Warriner, as long as they are used properly – holding them for about 20 seconds over a surface to kill germs.
"I would imagine people would just wave it like a magic wand thinking, ‘Oh, it's clean now.’ So I suspect it's not that effective.”
Toronto housekeeper Ruiz acknowledged that Sheraton managers also inspect the rooms, but they’re looking for obvious problems like hair or garbage.
According to former hotel inspector Kristy Adams, visual inspections aren’t enough. Even though many hotels have the technology to perform better tests, she says the issue boils down to budget and company commitment.
“It's going to come down to dollars and who can afford it, but also what the brand's standards are,” she said.
Those standards are up to the individual hotels because the industry is self-policing, Adams said.
“We don't have an outside government body that comes into hotels … or evaluates a hotel to see if the hotel is abiding by governmental standards,” she said.
Warriner thinks the shocking findings could lead to positive change for the industry and guests.
“I'm hoping this study enables hotels to develop a plan to say, ‘Right, we've got a problem now. How are we going to solve it?'"
Watch The Dirt on Hotels part 2, Friday at 8 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador) as Marketplace reveals new risks you don't see - and what you can do about them.