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Hotel Room Health Risks Difficult to Spot

By Chris Jones, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Sep. 12, 2006 - Bomb-wielding jihadists may be the focal point of many travelers' unease, but terrorism isn't the only threat lurking around the world's airports and hotels.

Other deadly, or at the very least disgusting, health risks can be much more difficult to spot.

And those threats could now be present in travelers' coffee mugs, toothbrushes or hotel bed linens, travel industry sources said Monday in Las Vegas.

From suicide bombers to bed bugs and vomit-laced ice buckets, there are seemingly countless ways to be sickened or killed when traveling both domestically and abroad.

Such worries are of particular concern in Las Vegas, which hosted nearly 38.6 million visitors last year and continues to rely upon travelers' expenditures to fuel economic growth.

So on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, approximately 250 police officers, health experts and tourism leaders gathered at Luxor for the Southern Nevada Tourist Safety Association's 15th International Tourism Safety and Security Conference.

Few attendees made a greater impression than Boyd Gaming Corp. Vice President Stan Smith, whose remarks won't soon appear on any "What happens here, stays here" ads promoting getaways in Southern Nevada.

"Bed bugs seem to be increasing in Las Vegas ... not only at run-down hotels but at some of the nicer properties," said Smith, a former Sam's Town security guard and Boulder City policeman who now oversees Boyd Gaming's risk management and security operations.

To illustrate his point, Smith showed slides of the creepy critters clinging to the side of a mattress inside an unidentified hotel room. Bed bugs are typically spread by guests' luggage, he said.

Smith next presented shots of mold-covered walls, leftover bathroom urine and a sink filled with muck that had been trapped inside a hotel bathroom's faucet. He said he frequently accompanies housekeepers while armed with a black light, which can detect hidden mold and remnant bodily discharges not visible to the naked eye.

Smith's comments -- which were delivered shortly before a steak and shrimp luncheon -- also urged attendees to remove the ice buckets commonly found in hotel rooms. Guests frequently vomit in the buckets before rinsing them out and placing them back on the nightstand, he said.

"Cleaning is critical to preventing disease," Smith explained, citing risks associated with the norovirus, avian flu and Asia's recent severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Smith said hotel companies should carefully monitor their guests to identify any potential carriers, and ensure that their rooms receive a deep cleaning after those guests check out. Housekeepers should be alert for signs of vomiting or diarrhea, the key symptoms of norovirus, he added.

The so-called "bird flu" and SARS have so far failed to reach Las Vegas, but guests at the Flamingo and the California Hotel were treated for norovirus as recently as 2004.

Steven Goode, an environmental health manager with the Southern Nevada Health District, said Monday he is confident local resorts are taking the proper steps to keep their rooms safe. While it's impossible to inspect each of the valley's 133,000 rooms, Goode said his staff collects sample data from each local resort on a biannual basis. Any rooms that fail to pass muster must be cleaned and reinspected before they're allowed to host visitors, he said.

"The rooms are, I believe, extra clean and well-maintained," Goode said. "There isn't a problem."

Goode's staff works closely with hotel housekeeping teams to ensure that they're updated on how to properly handle cleanups. Each bodily discharge, he added, is treated and cleaned using the standards that apply to communicable diseases, whether a person vomited from norovirus or too many vodka martinis.

"We certainly don't want anything to impact the tourism industry," Goode said. "Whether it's a disease or threat of a disease, those things would have an impact and the industry does a great job to handle" this in a proactive manner.

Resort food and beverage workers must also do their part to keep guests healthy and safe, said Tanya MacLaurin, a consultant and academic from the University of Guelph in Ontario. She said food-related illnesses are the most common ailment plaguing travelers, and each illness has the potential to damage a destination's ability to attract visitors.

Approximately 32 percent of travelers surveyed in an airport said they've been ill on a trip due to bad food, Mac-Laurin said. Half of those travelers required medical attention, and two-thirds said they changed their travel plans due to illness.

She urged the industry to set worldwide health standards so that travelers can know their food is safe, regardless of where they are in the world.

Rudy Maxa, a consumer travel expert with St. Paul, Minn.-based SavTrav Productions, joked that he was able to still eat lunch after the remarks by Smith and Mac-Laurin.

A similar sense of perseverance in the face of obstacles has kept people traveling despite the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the rash of al-Qaida-backed bombings in Jordan, Bali, London and Madrid, among other sites.

"Despite the constant threat, and continued news reports of people making threats, our business is booming. But that can change almost immediately," said Maxa, a former Washington Post writer who's now a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Maxa urged attendees to be observant, noting that behavior pattern recognition may help catch would-be attackers more efficiently than X-ray devices or explosive detection machines.

"You can't check every vial of medicine, but you can make a judgment about a person's behavior," he said.

The two-day conference, which concludes today, was co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Police Department and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Other speakers included representatives of the Port of Seattle Police Department and the Royal Bahamas Police Force, as well as the security directors from Luxor and Pure Management Group, which operates several Las Vegas nightclubs.

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To see more of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lvrj.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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