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11th May 2009
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Home from home

Neil Eisberg, 11/05/2009

‘The great advantage of a hotel is that it is a great refuge from home life’, according to George Bernard Shaw, but, as most readers would probably agree, we all expect a hotel to be at the very least as comfortable and as clean as our own homes.


It has been said that a particularly distinguishing feature of the human mind is that it can hold two contradictory concepts at the same time, so-called cognitive dissonance. And our perceptions of hotel rooms are a particular case. We all know that on one level we are just one of many temporary residents in a hotel bed room but on another level we want to feel as though we are the very first occupier of that room.


The key aspect that we demand is cleanliness – we expect there to be absolutely no trace of the previous resident(s). And increasingly we expect this to be achieved in a ‘green’ and/or sustainable manner. While the exhortations of hotel managements for guests to re-use towels and decline daily changes are seen as sometimes detracting from the ‘luxury’ of clean towels and sheets on a daily basis, recent reports of a plague of bed bugs in hotels, as well as homes and college dormitories, across the US does focus the attention on the standards of cleanliness that guests expect.


This cleanliness does not come without cost as Anthonie Lombard, from Ecolab, pointed out to delegates at the recent American Chemical Society meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah. But in comparison with, for example, the daily per capita expenditure on transportation in developed countries, $10, or on tobacco products, $2, the cost for the chemicals used for each cleaning interaction with a consumer, or what Lombard describes as a ‘touch’, is very small. Lombard estimates that if all industrial and institutional facilities are included, more than 1m globally, he believes, the average cost of each of these operations ‘touching’ around 2bn people ‘between home and home’ every day, in hotels for example, is less than $0.01/touch, or less than $0.10/day.


But there is also a human cost involved for hotel housekeeping staff, whose injury rate of 10.4% is almost double that for US industry as a whole. Lombard said that housekeeping staff are also seven times more likely to suffer a chemically related injury from the many formulated products they use.


By coincidence, the European Agency for Safety & Health at Work (EASHW), set up by the European Union, has recently released a report, Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks, which also points out that a wide range of chemicals is endangering the health of European workers. Although the report covers all types of workers, a key finding is that 10 times more people die from dangerous substances than from workplace accidents. ‘It is estimated that each year there are 74,000 work-related deaths linked to hazardous substances encountered in the workplace,’ says Jukka Takala, EASHW director.


Now many might call for even tougher regulations regarding the use of chemical products but restrictions on chemicals bring their own problems. The US bed bug plague has been blamed, among other things, on the banning of DDT, among other chemicals, which all but eliminated these creatures over 40 years ago. One possible explanation for the return of the bed bug has been the trend towards species-specific pesticides, allowing the bug to escape the effects of the more general products used previously, while other researchers have evidence that they have become resistant to current products.


The urgency of the problem can be gauged by the EPA holding a National Bed Bug Summit on 14-15 April 2009 under the auspices of its Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee. Attendees highlighted the fact that there has been little if any research into bed bugs for the past 40-50 years, and this situation needs to be rectified rapidly, including a review of existing and potential chemical treatments.


But it is not just a matter of finding the right chemicals to do a particular job; producers of cleaning products, for example, must meet consumer demands for green and sustainable products (C&I 2009, 8, 16) as well as meeting regulatory and health and safety requirements.


The hotel sector offers a significant market for chemical innovation, not just as regards the products themselves and their effectiveness in maintaining health and cleanliness, according to Lombard. Suitable products can offer additional effects including the reduction in energy and utility costs, and also labour costs, while offering potent green and sustainable marketing story to attract informed customers. There is, said Lombard, ‘a vast source of opportunities for innovation by leveraging chemistry especially through the use of sustainable green chemistry’.

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