Hand Sanitizer: The Newest Piece of Must-Have Climbing Gear

Turns out your favorite dirtbag climbers aren't the only gross thing hanging out at the local wall.

What horrors lurk on those hand holds? (Mordolff/iStock)
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We’ve got some news for you: The climbing gym you’ve been frequenting this winter is disgusting. Seriously, there’s fecal matter all over your favorite routes, according to a recent study.

To conduct the experiment, researchers at Appalachian State University swabbed 12 surfaces at four East Coast climbing gyms. “We mostly swabbed lower-on-the-wall surfaces because those get the most use,” says Erik Rabinowitz, PhD, an associate professor of outdoor recreation at the North Carolina school.

Samples were then sent to a lab for DNA-based molecular testing. The gross part: results found that 100 percent of the samples contained enterobacteriaceae (sometimes called enteric bacteria because of their propensity for living in our intestines). And many of the specific types of enterobacteriacae were associated with fecal matter, according to the study published in the June 2014 issue of Current Microbiology.

But before you cancel your rock gym membership, know that most public surfaces are this bad—or worse. “Sure, like most other things you encounter in life, there was fecal matter. But it wasn’t at the level that should really gross us out,” says Rabinowitz. “You’d find a lot worse on like a kid’s toy.”

You’d also certainly find worse on your favorite outside routes, where birds, squirrels and big horned sheep defecate freely, says Charles Gerba, PhD, a professor at the University of Arizona’s Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science.

We live in a germ-covered world. Think about that grocery cart you just pushed around the store. A 2012 Food Protection Trends paper identified shopping carts as one of the most “bacterially contaminated objects that the general public come into contact with.” Carts had more than 117,000 heterotrophic bacteria in the 668-square-centimeter samples tested. Fifty percent of carts had E. coli on them. Those lemon wedges that come in your water at restaurants? Those are filthy too. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found 69.7 percent of lemons put into restaurant drinks contained microbial growth of some sort. And don’t get Gerba started on airplane restrooms. “Those are the germiest of all. Think about it, you’ve got 50 people to a toilet. If there’s any way to avoid using the restroom on a plane, do it.”

Gerba, affectionately known as “Dr. Germ” by both his colleagues and the media, started studying germs on toilets in 1972. His fascination with microbes spiraled from there. In 1999, Gerba took a group camping for an Outside story. “Within like a day of being out in the woods your hands are absolutely filthy—all kinds of bacteria on them,” he says. The idea of those hands preparing campfire meals sends him almost into a panic. “It’s just disgusting.”

While some research shows that exposure to germs as an infant is important for developing a healthy immune system, Gerba isn’t convinced that exposure after that is necessary—or good for you. “If that [exposure boosting immunity] were the case, Bangladesh would be the healthiest country on the planet,” he says.

Luckily you can reduce your risk of getting sick—indoors or out—by washing your hands regularly and using antibacterial hand gel. “It’s been shown that using a hand sanitizer can reduce your risk by between 40 to 50 percent,” Gerba says.

As for that rock climbing gym, avoid touching your face between routes. The average person touches their face between 12 to 16 times an hour without realizing it, according to Gerba. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and you’ll reduce the chances of getting sick.

In the meantime, Rabinowitz is working on a paper that will give climbing gyms guidelines on proper cleaning for maximum sanitation. He recommends gyms try to clean routes on a rotating basis, with one route always shut down while the holds are run through a dishwasher. Once a year, he recommends the gym take all routes down and sanitize the wall itself.

His advice for climbers is this: “If you use your shoes outside, wash them before climbing inside. And don’t wear your climbing shoes into the gym’s bathroom.” Finally, he adds, “And don’t stick your fingers in your mouth [mid climb] to add some stick.”

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