Negin Rahanjam seems to be pleased with what’s on the end of her cotton swab.

“It’s very dusty,” the University of British Columbia microbiologist says, standing over a hotel room sink.

Rahanjam and I have checked into three Vancouver hotels in the same morning: the Holiday Inn Downtown on Howe Street ($235 per night for a Standard King), the Opus Hotel in Yaletown ($360 for a Superior King), and the Fairmont Waterfront ($495 for a Harbour View King).

The toilets have been scrubbed, the beds made, the fresh coffee pods laid out. We haven’t told the hotels what we’re doing. At least, not yet.

Rahanjam and I are in search of bacteria. And to find them, she advises, we should examine spots that have moisture, or that people like to touch.

“I’ve always been very curious about the smaller world that we can’t actually see,” Rahanjam says, guiding us into the bathroom at our first stop.

She starts taking samples: The toilet flush handle. The bathroom faucet. The glass sitting on the bathroom counter. The doorknobs. The remote control. The phone. The handle on the minibar fridge. The coffee maker. And the ice bucket.

First, Rahanjam swabs a yellow plate that she says will grow almost any organism. Then, with a fresh swab, she takes another sample and swabs a red plate designed to isolate E. coli, if it’s there.

Ice bucket swabs

The above image shows swabs taken from ice buckets.

That’s 10 spots, times two samples each, times three Vancouver hotels.

“Where do you think we’re going to find the biggest problem?” I ask.

“It could be anywhere,” Rahanjam answers.

At the Fairmont Waterfront, there’s a plastic bag provided to line the ice bucket, but underneath the lid, there’s something sticky.

At the Opus in Yaletown, Rahanjam calls me over to point out stains that “could be mould” on the inside of a glass.

And then there’s that dirty faucet at the Holiday Inn: “We’re going to find a lot of germs,” she says.

And those are just the things we can see.

Sixty samples complete, it’s off to the lab, where the plates go into an incubator for 48 hours before the head of the Hancock Lab, UBC Killam Professor Bob Hancock, joins us with the results.

Overall results

The above table shows overall results of our test. Scroll down for interactive infographics.

“What surprises me is they did such a good job in all the hotels of cleaning a lot of the surfaces,” Hancock says.

But there were a few items that stand out, starting with the bathroom faucets.

“That was a bit of a surprise to me,” Hancock says.

The Fairmont Waterfront sample tops our test, with more than 500 colonies counted on the yellow plate. The Holiday Inn has 387. The Opus, 345. And all three samples tested positive for E. coli, the only spots that did out of all 60 swabs.

“The one thing I would recommend is better cleaning of bathroom faucets,” Hancock says.

Hotel swab test

The above image shows swabs taken from hotel faucets.

When it comes to the ice bucket, the Fairmont bucket with the sticky lid doesn’t test nearly as bad as it looked, with just 74 colonies. The Holiday Inn, 153. The Opus, 437. I recall that the Opus ice bucket was still wet inside when it was swabbed.

“It has a great big fungus there,” Hancock says excitedly, pointing to the Opus TV remote sample. To me, it looks like mould you might find growing on something left too long in the fridge. Opus: 198, Holiday Inn: 190, Fairmont: 238.

Swab tests from TV remotes

The above image shows swabs taken from TV remotes.

And then there’s that Opus water glass with the spots inside. Turns out it’s clean, with only eight colonies. The Holiday Inn glass comes in at 5, the Fairmont, 0.

“I believe that everybody has to be exposed to bacteria,” Hancock says.

And because the numbers of bacteria that were harvested in our test are relatively small, Hancock explains, it’s unlikely the average person would get sick.

“I wouldn’t worry about it to tell the truth.”

CTV reached out to all three hotels after our tests were complete to share the results.

Hotel rooms

A spokesperson for IHG, the parent company of Holiday Inn, emailed: “IHG sets stringent quality standards, which we take very seriously. Any claim that a hotel is not following the standards falls below our expectations, and we are following up with this hotel to address immediately.”

Nicholas Gandossi, general manager of the Opus Hotel Vancouver, wrote: “At OPUS Hotel we’ve always considered cleanliness to be an important part of our guest experience…that being said, we appreciate you sharing your findings, and will review the details internally with our senior management team.”

And Kristyna Vogel, marketing and public relations manager for the Fairmont Waterfront said: “We are very disappointed with the initial results of your hotel stay… as we consider the comfort, safety and well-being of our guests to be of paramount importance.”

Vogel went on to say “We are very proud of our guestroom standards and firmly believe that the right measures are in place to deliver on this important guest expectation. That said, we do consider any breach of these standards and procedures to be a serious violation of our operating practices and will ensure additional monitoring is undertaken and further training is provided.”

The Fairmont Waterfront also detailed some of their specific cleaning procedures to CTV News. For example, “for high-touch points such as television remotes, handles, light switches, and telephones, a peroxide antibacterial disinfectant is used to eliminate bacteria and other micro-organisms. Other sanitation measures that are in place include swab analysis, and the use of microfibre cloths,” Vogel wrote.

So should you clean the bathroom faucets with bleach wipes, or put the remote control in a plastic bag the next time you check in?

“People should do what makes them comfortable,” Hancock advises. “Wash your hands properly, and that’s the best protection.”