Study Finds 'Fecal Veneer' on Gym Holds

8/11/14 - The next time your gym partner says "That's a crappy hold!" she may mean more than size or texture. In a study published this summer in Current Microbiology, researchers found that every gym hold they tested had traces of microorganisms associated with fecal matter. The analyses "suggest the presence of a fecal veneer on indoor climbing wall holds," the report said.

Researchers swabbed the surface of three holds each from four unnamed gyms in New England and North Carolina in 2011. The 12 holds tested were all at the start of the routes, and each had not been washed in at least a month. DNA extracted from the swabs was analyzed for the presence of microorganisms of various types.

The study's lead author, Dr. Suzanna Bräuer, associate professor of biology at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, explained that the microbes present on the holds are associated with the general environment (especially soil), human sources (skin and mouth), and feces (either human or animal).

The study found that the proportion of microbes from environmental sources was higher than that found in similar studies of microorganisms in other indoor environments, compared with human sources. "Because human-associated microbial communities typically contain a higher abundance of human pathogens and/or opportunistic pathogens, one might infer that climbing holds potentially pose less of a health risk compared to other indoor environments," the study concluded.

But what about that fecal veneer? Dr. Bräuer, a climber who frequents a gym with her husband, said in an email that, "Although it's impossible to say from our study, I would think that the most likely source of the fecal bacteria would be dog or animal feces. If the hold did contain human fecal material, and IF the E. coli were pathogenic, it would pose a major threat. I think that's very unlikely, but again it's impossible to tell from the type of data that we collected. All we know is that E. coli were strongly present. I would guess this would be from outdoor sources."

In other words, the most likely source of the fecal material on gym holds is whatever climbers stepped in at the crag—which they then tracked into the climbing gym and onto its routes.

What can climbers do about it? The study noted, "While this does not necessarily represent a significant risk, climbers should take precautions, for example, by washing their hands both before and after climbing." Washing the soles of shoes also may help—with the practical benefit of increasing the rubber's stickiness. And, as Dr. Bräuer noted, "My colleague and coauthor Dr. Erik Rabinowitz believes strongly that climbing gyms should wash holds more frequently."

Date of report: June 2014

Sources: Current Microbiology (June 28, 2014), Dr. Suzanna L. Bräuer


Previous Comments

Generally, more experienced climbers take their shoes off immediately (at the base of the climbs) after climbing. Novice climbers and visitors to the gym with rental shoes often walk around the gym and into the bathrooms wearing their climbing shoes the entire time. More advanced climbers generally develop skills that allow them to climb much harder routes then novice climbers, as a result, novice climbers are limited to attempting much easier routes. It has always been my supposition that easier routes would have a high urine content as a result of frequent exposure to novice climbers, while harder routes would likely remain urine free. I suspect there is an inverse correlation between route difficulty and the concentration of contaminants... Never warm up on anything easier than 11a!!!

Bryan - 09/17/2014 4:37:30

Dougald MacDonald, that's funny. Aren't you the guy who took a crap on the Rostrum 7-8 years ago?! Talk about E Coli all over a trade route.

Honky Tonk - 09/04/2014 7:23:32

Three ways this happens: :( Outdoor areas allow pets that shit on the climbing pathways. Climbers step where the large portion of the shit was then transport the remains to the gym. This make outdoor areas just as contaminated :( People walk outside with sneakers in places where pets shit. They carry the remains into the climbing gym on their soles and then warm up in their sneakers and contaminate holds :( People don't wash their hands after wiping (rude) should receive great amounts of ridiculing and picture on wall of shame #nowipey

Ace - 08/28/2014 9:24:26

Ok, folks here's a high-risk enterprise with a rapidly declining participation: Insurance costs. As for the research paper: doesn't publishing in a "peer reviewed journal" have any weight or authority? Where the reviewers found the sample size and the methodology rigorous enough to publish the paper, the armchair pathologists should sit this one out. It is a useful study that should lead to replication and expansion by other researchers - and, there is still time to develop protocols to lessen, or avoid the risk. All that it would take is one John Long, or Hazel Findley class climber hospitalized, or worse, from an avoidable infection contracted from their ordinary use of a climbing gym and the insurance pool dries up. Do a tiny bit of research - how many gyms have tramps v. the total number of climbing gyms within a 100 km radius of gyms with tramps -the results are startling.

George R. O'Connor - 08/23/2014 12:27:03

You should have not published this, Dougald. I'm disappointed. Pure sensationalism. Of no scientific, and thus, journalistic value. Simply looking for readers?? For hits?? Very, Very disappointed in your choices . . . and it was aCHOICE! Please don't hide behind some lame, contrived, "it's not my assertion, I'm just passing it along for the public good" bullshit argument. I've read many, many your contributions over the years, and this is such a disappointment.

David Hudson - 08/21/2014 9:58:39

Fecal matter is commonly found on brand new latex gloves used by everyone from nurses and dental hygienists to the friendly folks making your sub.... It's everywhere folks.

pinner - 08/18/2014 12:29:17

All gyms should routinely require hold cleaning with documentation. Just as you see a bathroom cleaning schedule posted with date of cleaning and signature. Last week I witnessed a dude take a dump in the men's room with his climbing shoes still on, walk right out without washing his hands and jump on the climbing wall. I told the staff at the desk and promptly left.

Granite - 08/17/2014 11:01:27

"Fecal Veneer..." This is news? Really? Consider this: "Researchers swabbed the surface of three holds each from four unnamed gyms in New England and North Carolina in 2011. The 12 holds tested..." From the Article in question. "This is a serious piece of research by an academic who is also a climber. It should not be ignored. " Last common-tater. "Our researcher is a Fulbright Scholar..." Quote from last common-tater again. Folks, Statistical Validity requires "n=31" where "n" is the Minimum number of any sample size to be used as a datum in a premise of a Sound Argument. Number used here? 12. How is this "A serious piece of research...?" Really? Well, I don't question "Our researcher is a Fulbright Scholar..." just the IDEA that such somehow justifies Bad Logic, Bad Statistical Use, and Erroneous Conclusions upon which to conduct our lives. No, I expect that the Fecal Veneer of such scholarship, Fullbright or otherwise, would ignore tried methods of empirical research in favor of "sensationalism to get a story" when there isn't enough collected data to make a Sound Assessment of anything worthy of reporting. "Fecal Veneer" is truly, at worst, a "surface condition." What it is Not, is a Sound Argument, OR a useful piece of information that can be relied upon in the real world. Try this one: "Some items in this world are dirty" is the only conclusion such "science" reaches, but that isn't news. It isn't even a serious study, let alone scientific research. As usual, Climb At Your Own Risk. You always do... Did you need a "scientist" to verify that? =8^D

The Clif - 08/17/2014 11:17:33

Our researcher is a Fulbright Scholar and the full citation to the article is: Bräuer SL, Vuono D*, Carmichael MJ*, Strom A*, Pepe-Ranney C, Rabinowitz E, Buckley DH, and Zinder SH. 2014. Microbial sequencing analyses suggest the presence of a fecal veneer on indoor climbing wall holds. Current Microbiology, doi:10.1007/s00284-014-0643. Let's not make light of this research. The modern Climbing Gym is an entirely different thing than climbing in the real world. Today we have pathogens that can kill a perfectly healthy human in hours - as in Escherichia coli O157:H7 - and that coliform is widespread and potentially deadly. Rippers and general abrasion provide excellent bacterial entry pathways and if the strain you encounter is hemorragic you could die. This is a serious piece of research by an academic who is also a climber. It should not be ignored. We could see the end of climbing gyms in the US if just one case results in death - because no insurance company would cover any climbing gym where the risk cannot be calculated (did the last guy up this wall wash his hands?).

George R. O'Connor - 08/15/2014 4:39:41

What a crappy sample size.

Nomad - 08/15/2014 3:30:47

Study shows 100% of gym bench press benches have poo matter on them.

Roo - 08/15/2014 3:23:55

A new "Climbing Hold" cleaning campaign obviously needs to be implemented, wherein all climbers would be enlisted to participate in "Hold Scrubbing Details", with the rallying cry (and accompanying bumper stickers reading) "NO SHIT! STRIVE FOR CLEAN CLIMBING! CAN’T WE ALL CLIMB CLEAN?! STERILIZE CLIMBERS! (AND THEIR HOLDS!)" Just saying....

Gary Bridgestock - 08/15/2014 1:11:29

This is why we tell beginners to use either their hands or feet on the holds, rather than licking the holds or inserting them into bodily orifices.

Jug Monkey - 08/14/2014 3:43:09

It's all part keeping a healthy immune system :)

Mr. Crushington - 08/14/2014 3:26:40

All this analysis of where it's coming from? Are you f-in kidding me?!? Go to most local gyms ( like mine ) and you can plainly see where the fecal comes from - the nitwits who wear their climbing shoes into ( and out of ) the bathroom!

Steve Smith - 08/14/2014 3:12:08

Fecal material is found on nearly all surfaces people touch. Paper money is famous for being infested with the stuff, and the reason is humans are terrible at washing. We've heard thousands of times to wash thoroughly and yet most people take less than ten seconds to wash which has been shown to NOT get rid of germs. Additionally, its very unlikely that someone will become ill from a climbing hold. ED's comment about the gym causing his staph infection is at best dubious. The splinter was much more likely to have introduced the bacteria or again, improper cleaning of the wound. Humans are not nearly as clean as we would like to believe.

Kat - 08/14/2014 2:03:09

John, at my gym when routes are torn down we set aside the hold for cleaning before they are put back into the setting bins. This makes sure all routes are set with clean holds.

Donald - 08/14/2014 2:52:30

I am all for gyms washing holds more often, but that's to get off all the grease!

Gordon - 08/12/2014 11:02:21

So...I'm not supposed to lick the holds?

doingitwrong - 08/11/2014 6:18:57

You had me at "fecal veneer."

Bill Irish - 08/11/2014 5:17:32

Seriously, NBD! Trace amounts of poo are everywhere, from shopping cart handles to holy water... why would a very public place like a gym be any different.

what don't kill ya - 08/11/2014 4:21:33

The statistics come from sampling 12 holds and finding 100% of them had "stuff".

Carl - 08/11/2014 4:05:36

I would be surprised if holds were ever cleaned. How would that even be possible considering the thousands of holds that could be on the walls.

John Tatman - 08/11/2014 3:39:20

E coli are everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It would be incredible to not find them on surfaces so frequently touched by people.

Jeremy - 08/11/2014 2:11:37

Twelve holds is hardly a statistically valid sample size

Herman Buhl - 08/11/2014 1:47:27

I contracted a serious staph infection from a climbing gym a few years back. I had a tiny splinter from work in my palm and climbed on it. A couple of days later I had shooting pains going up into my armpit and was put on iv antibiotics. Open wounds + indoor gym = Danger.

ED - 08/11/2014 12:47:47