Don’t touch!

So here I am, getting ready to fly off to Vancouver to spend a few days in a hotel while attending the VCon science fiction convention to promote the paperback release this week of my science fiction novel Lost in Translation (was that a subtle enough plug?), and I read this:

“A common cold can be just a fingertip away thanks to the high rate of viral contamination of environmental surfaces that a cold sufferer can leave behind, according to a study in hotel rooms…”

Oh, goody.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and Reckitt-Benckiser, “the world’s number one household cleaning company (excluding laundry)” (I love that little qualifying parenthetical insertion) involved ensconcing 15 adults with the symptoms of rhinovirus infection in hotel rooms. (Rhinoviruses, despite sounding like something a zoo veterinarian should be more concerned about than doctors, are responsible for about half of all common colds.)

The participants had to stay awake for at least five hours prior to sleeping overnight, then spend a couple more hours awake in the room the following morning, performing normal activities. The received food via room service and no other individuals entered the rooms.

When they checked in, they were asked to blow their noses with a facial tissue, after which the investigators tested their fingertips for contamination by rhinoviruses. Vials of infectious nasal secretions were also collected for later use. When they checked out, the participants were asked to identify the objects they had touched and how often, and the researchers tested 10 objects for residual virus.

Two to four months after their colds ended, five of the participants were brought back and asked to touch three surfaces in a hotel room that had been contaminated with their own previously collected nasal secretions (to which they had immunity—the researchers didn’t want to make anybody sick). Before they touched the surfaces they washed their hands with soap and water and dried them with paper towels, and had their fingertips tested for virus. After the test, they washed their hands again, touched the contaminated sites, and had their fingertips tested for virus again.

The researchers found that the cold sufferers easily transferred their viruses to 35 percent of the surfaces they touched. The most frequently contaminated objects were door handles (seven out of 14 rooms), light switches, TV remote controls and faucets (each six out of 15 rooms) and telephones (five out of 15 rooms). No big surprises there, although researchers were surprised to find only one contaminated toilet handle.

That figure of 35 percent is an average, of course. Rhinovirus contamination of the surfaces sampled ranged all the way from 80 percent in three rooms (yuck!) to 30 to 50 percent in seven rooms, ten percent in three rooms, and none in two rooms. So it’s not a foregone conclusion you’ll pick up a cold from the previous occupant of your hotel room, but the odds are a heck of a lot better than, say, winning the lottery.

The second half of the test found that viruses were transferred from contaminated surfaces to fingertips 47 percent of the time—28 out of 60 touches. But that’s just touching them once; remember that that rate holds true every time you touch the contaminated surface, and you touch certain objects a lot whenever you’re in a hotel room. Sooner or later, you’re likely to get “lucky.”

On the plus side, the likelihood of picking up the virus on your fingertips goes down with time. Surfaces contaminated for just one hour transferred rhinoviruses 18 out of 30 times (60 percent) while those contaminated for 18 hours transferred rhinoviruses only 10 out of 30 times (30 percent).

This is science, so of course there must be a high-tech solution to the problem of contaminated objects in hotel rooms, right?

Well, not exactly. As the press release says, “The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommends cleaning hands often and routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. People should regularly wash their hands after shaking hands with anyone with a cold or touching environmental objects likely contaminated with nasal secretions. Commonly touched surfaces, such as those identified in this work, should be disinfected routinely with a disinfectant…” (preferably one made by Reckitt-Benckiser, of course).

In other words…when you’re mother told you to wash your hands and keep things clean, she was right. And now there’s scientific proof.

You should tell her that.

And if you’re about to spend time in a hotel, as I am…well, I hear rubber gloves come in a range of fashionable colours.

Don’t they?

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