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Healthier Homes Away From Home

Wheezing, sneezing, hacking and coughing are often unwelcome companions for the estimated 62 million Americans who suffer from allergies and asthma.

Now, the U.S. lodging industry is taking tentative steps to make sure they aren’t traveling companions, too.

A small but growing number of hotel and motel chains are unveiling programs that range from installing air and water purifiers, to using bedding made without potentially offensive chemicals, to meet the needs of guests who require help with their health.

A leader in environmental friendliness is the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square Hotel in Philadelphia, which has filtered air in all 193 rooms; an atrium with a 40-foot-high bamboo garden that oxygenates air in the lobby; bedding made without toxic bleaches or dyes; nontoxic laundry and cleaning products; and paint, wallpaper, carpeting and draperies containing no toxic chemicals that might affect people who suffer from allergies or asthma.

The hotel’s efforts to create a healthier atmosphere for travelers have been “very well received,” says hotel spokeswoman Nadeen Ayala.

Doctors like Robert Nathan, a Colorado Springs, Colo., allergist, welcome the trend toward healthier hotel rooms. But they question whether enough is being done.

“The concept is excellent, as long as they can produce what they’re saying they can do,” says Nathan, a member of the board of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “Are they also putting on those allergy-proof pillow coverings and mattress covers, or just using air filtration?”

Best Inns & Suites, a chain of economy hotels franchised by U.S. Franchise Systems of Atlanta, isn’t planning to go as far as the Sheraton Rittenhouse Square. But it is installing air- and water-purifying systems in about 10 rooms at each of its 163 hotels either open or under construction, spokeswoman Barbara Wiener says.

Guests are generally charged several dollars more per night for the “healthy” rooms, she says.

Wiener says smoking isn’t allowed in the rooms. And while there are no plans to use nontoxic cleaners, nonallergenic soaps, special carpeting and curtains, or hypoallergenic bedding, those are all possibilities down the line.

Meeting the health needs of guests

Veteran hotelier Richard Benson, general manager of the Dauphine Orleans Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter, says more awareness is being paid to the health needs of guests. Hotels are paying more attention to the dietary needs of travelers, as well as the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink and shower in, he says.

“It’s just an awareness to the health needs of the traveling public,” says Benson, who has worked in the hotel industry on both coasts and points in between for 35 years.

All 111 rooms in the Dauphine Orleans Hotel have been outfitted with air and water filters for about two years, he says. The air filters have cut down on guests’ allergic reactions to pollen, a common source of problems in the New Orleans area, Benson says.

Louise Kosta of the Human Ecology Action League, an Atlanta-based advocacy group, says more needs to be done to cut down on the use of heavily scented cleaning products, air fresheners, and poorly ventilated hotel atriums filled with plants that, she says, are breeding grounds for mold.

But, Kosta adds, any steps taken to create healthier environments in hotels and motels are positive ones. “It does make a lot of sense to get the indoor environment in these lodgings as clean as possible, for you to sleep better and feel better when you wake up so your eyes aren’t real swollen,” she says.

It’s difficult to predict whether decisions like that made by Best Inns & Suites to provide some customers with cleaner air and water will help start a trend, says Tia Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel and Motel Association.

“It’s not like there’s a big block of hotels that are out there providing allergy-free items for their guests,” Gordon says.

But Best Inns & Suites spokeswoman Wiener says the move toward “healthy” hotel rooms may have just begun.

She compares the installation of air and water filters to the rise of nonsmoking rooms throughout the lodging industry. Many hotels now set aside half their rooms for nonsmokers, she says.

“I really see a lot of promise for this,” Wiener says. “It’s not a complicated thing. It’s not hard to install. It’s not real expensive and it’s something we can handle. I’m hopeful it will continue to grow.”

What To Do

The Human Ecology Action League publishes a directory of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds for people with “multiple chemical sensitivities,” Kosta says. To learn more about the organization, visit its Web site.

And for lots of information about allergies and asthma, see the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

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