One of the effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic observed across industries is a change in perspective. It’s not new that threats to our health or the health of others shift our focus. But social distancing―and complete lockdown in some areas―does impact our dialogues in a unique way.
Health and safety conversations have always accompanied climbing, but now our questions are taking on a new tone and gravity. For many climbing gym operators, a major question may be, “When my gym reopens, how can I further reduce the health risks for my climbers and staff?”
There are so many things outside our immediate control―like the air we breathe outside. However, we can filter the air we breathe inside, where we are spending more and more time. And Camfil, one of the world leaders in air purification, is reclaiming clean air as a human right―in the climbing gym too.
A Homegrown Company for Homegrown Gyms
Camfil has been fighting the war for clean air since the middle of the 20th century. After World War II, the Stockholm-based company discovered ways to stop bioterrorism with a particulate filter. Government embassies soon became the number one buyer.
Since then, the business has evolved into an $830 million enterprise with six of its own research and development centers (including one in Riverdale, New Jersey), 30 manufacturing sites and 4,800 employees worldwide. Despite the growth, the company has remained family-owned and rooted in its core belief: clean air is a human right.
Austin Bouldering Project was the first climbing gym in North America to reach out to Camfil for its air filtration services. Camfil accepted the challenge as a one-off in 2017, but soon more climbing gyms were lining up. Filters were next installed inside Übergrippen in Denver and ASCEND in Pittsburgh.
Healthier Climbers, Lower Costs
Alex Bernstein, Co-Founder of ASCEND and born-and-raised in Pittsburgh, relied on standard HVAC air handlers for ventilation and filtration when the first ASCEND gym opened in 2017. Four months into operation, the air handler quickly filled with chalk and the motor broke down. Fortunately, the HVAC company replaced the motor under warranty, otherwise the fix would have totaled tens of thousands of dollars. Bernstein tried adding lower-grade chalk filtration units to prevent that from happening again. Instead, they just blew the chalk dust around more than anything. Enough was enough. Bernstein had six Camfil air cleaners installed in ASCEND Pittsburgh.
“We have noticed a significant reduction in the amount of chalk dust landing on surfaces and in the air during busy times,” confirms Bernstein. “And judging by the literal pounds of dust we find when removing filters, we know the Camfil air cleaners are doing their job.”
In capturing a wide range of chalk dust, Camfil air cleaners increase the longevity of HVAC systems and reduce the energy costs required to operate them. Chalk dust can also collect on fitness equipment and act like sandpaper between the parts, reducing their service life. And as many gym staff members know, constantly cleaning chalk dust takes time. Camfil air cleaners reduce these costs, while providing a healthier environment for gym staff and climbers.
“We don’t have long-term data yet, but I know we are saving tons of money by our employees cleaning less and equipment lasting longer,” says Bernstein. “Most importantly, we have a cleaner and healthier gym for our community.”
A New Standard for Climbing Gyms
Since working with ASCEND, the homegrown company of Camfil has provided air cleaners to at least 30 climbing gyms―and about 60 more gyms are soon to be outfitted.
Camfil now attends the CWA Summit year after year, where the group met Timy Fairfield, Founder of Futurist Climbing. This year, Futurist announced a partnership with Camfil which will expand distribution of Camfil air filtration solutions in the climbing industry. While there is not an official air quality standard yet for the climbing industry, Camfil and Futurist are working to set the bar high.
“As a professional competition climber who, along with friends, training partners and junior athletes who have attended my clinics and youth performance training camps, has spent countless hours over decades in poorly regulated, chalk-infested indoor climbing environments, I have become aware and somewhat concerned about the potentially deleterious long-term effects of prolonged exposure to airborne chalk dust particles on overall health and athletic performance,” says Fairfield. “As a result, for over a decade Futurist Climbing had been searching for a credible research-backed indoor air quality solution for climbing gym client facilities that would improve working conditions for employees, the aesthetic appeal of the first impression of facilities, frequent participant protection and athletic performance.”
Advanced Filters for Dangerous Particles
It’s not uncommon to see chalk clouds in climbing gyms. Still, many climbers may be surprised to learn the chalk in those clouds has a size. Steve Smith, Segment Manager of North & South America at Camfil, breaks down the air in climbing gyms by micrometers―or microns. For reference, particles ten microns in diameter are the smallest particles a human eye can see. A single strand of hair, for instance, is around 50 microns in size. This is also the smallest particle size most HVAC air handlers in gyms capture.
However, according to Smith most chalk dust in climbing gyms is much smaller. About 90% of chalk dust is 5 microns or less, and about 73% is 1 micron or less. In other words, we can’t even see most of the chalk dust we inhale on a regular basis when climbing. And there’s not chalk alone in the air columns of climbing gyms. Unknowingly, we often breathe in allergens, bacteria, viruses and more when climbing indoors. And for the most part, this widespread particle pollution is invisible.
The Particle Pollution in Climbing Gyms
The idea that climbing gyms can be breeding grounds for particle pollution is not new. In studies published in 2008 and 2012, researchers discovered high levels of chalk dust in indoor climbing spaces in Germany. Several chalk types were studied, including in the form of blocks, powder and liquid. Surprisingly, the use of chalk socks did not reduce the levels; using liquid chalk did make a difference though. However, these studies measured only coarse particles 2.5-10 microns in size.
Dr. Erik Rabinowitz, Research Professor in the Department of Recreation Management and Physical Education at Appalachian State University, is expanding climbing gym sanitation and air quality research in the US. One of the latest studies measures particle pollution inside two university climbing walls. The study is still under peer review, but early findings suggest high levels of chalk dust may exist in some indoor climbing spaces in the US too. Cramped gyms, in particular, may be more at risk than open gyms.
“Through a comparison of PM [particulate matter] readings from two universities’ indoor climbing wall facilities, we demonstrate the potential for a range of ‘good’ to ‘very unhealthy’ air quality conditions,” says Dr. Rabinowitz. “It is evident that more research is needed to understand the potential health effects of regular unhealthy exposure to PM for students and professional staff, as well as for climbing gym patrons.” To help support this research, Dr. Rabinowitz may be contacted here.
Outside the climbing industry, what is known already about the health effects of particle pollution?
The Health Effects of Particle Pollution
The American Lung Association (ALA) publishes a State Of The Air report every year which tracks how the air we breathe affects our health. The ALA identifies a number of health consequences correlated with short-term and year-round exposure to particle pollution. In short, according to the ALA, “The best evidence shows that having less of all types of particles in the air leads to better health and longer lives.”
“Every major health problem we have as humans―respiratory, cardiac, cancer, diabetes―you go down the list of problems and they all follow the same Bell Curve as the metropolitan areas’ air quality,” confirms Smith. “You’re ten times more likely to have cancer if you live in Los Angeles, California, than if you live in Des Moines, Iowa. So air quality is a huge, huge issue.”
That conclusion is especially true for athletes, who take in more air when working out, and people with pre-existing conditions. It’s also especially true during outbreaks of the flu and other viruses. According to a recent study published on the National Institutes for Health (NIH), COVID-19 can remain in aerosols for up to three hours. All viruses are particles, and remember all particles have a size. In the case of COVID-19, that size is .1-.2 microns. Microns of that size in our air columns are nearly impossible for human bodies to filter on their way.
“One micron or less, when you inhale it into your lungs, you can’t exhale it. It doesn’t have any gravitational pull, and it doesn’t have enough surface area to be breathed out,” says Smith. “What happens is that it gets into the lining of your lungs and it goes directly into your bloodstream.”
Now, new research at the public health school of Harvard University shows a link between particle pollution and COVID-19 deaths. Someone living in a county with just slightly higher particle pollution is 15 percent more likely to die from COVID-19. Luckily―at least when it comes to the air we breathe inside―Camfil air filters capture particles of that size.
The Air Filters
When stepping into the wide world of air filtration, it’s important to know not all air filters are alike. Air filters are now commonly measured in terms of minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV). This rating system is used by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the governing body of HVAC in the USA. The MERV rating denotes the percentage of particles at a certain size captured by the filter.
Most HVAC air handlers filter coarse particles (2.5-10 microns in diameter) and have MERV-8 filters which capture 5 microns and up. Instead, Camil takes it one step further by filtering coarse particles as well as fine particles (.1-2.5 microns), and even ultrafine particles like COVID-19 (.1 microns or less). Many gym clients of Camfil are using Hi-Flo ES filters rated MERV-13, which stop 60-70 percent of particles sized .3 microns. According to Smith, that’s the magic number.
“.3 microns are the hard to capture particles, since they’re very erratic. If you can capture .3 at a level of 60 percent, the smaller stuff you’re getting probably closer to 100 percent, as well as the larger stuff,” confirms Smith.
Camfil has thousands of filters to choose from and the most advanced on the market. The effectiveness of filters can change throughout their lifetime, which is why Camfil rates all its filters for end of life―even though ASHRAE doesn’t yet require this testing standard. For gyms looking to upgrade around the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith suggests investing in Camfil filters with even higher MERV ratings (at least MERV-15). Camfil also produces HEPA filters, which capture 99.9% of particles .3 microns in size.
The Air Cleaners
Even with high-quality air filters, an effective air filtration system needs high-quality air cleaners to pull the air through them. Once again, it may be surprising to think of the air inside climbing gyms in terms of size. Smith breaks it down into basketballs, which are about 1 cubic square foot in size. The CamCleaner Horizontal air cleaner by Camfil can filter up to 4,000 basketballs of air per minute; that’s 66 basketballs per second. In a matter of hours, an operator could completely drain and refill a gym’s air, just like a swimming pool.
Maintaining that level of air flow requires the right combination of static pressure. In addition to a MERV rating, Camfil gives it’s filters a static pressure rating as well. The static pressure is how much energy it takes to move air through that filter and keep the air flow. Camfil is the only manufacturer on the market to taper the pockets of its air filters, which improves the static pressure rating. The end result? An efficient filtration system which can use better air filters and require less energy to do so.
“You can’t just go up into an HVAC air handler and put a MERV-13 filter. They don’t have enough power to pull air through that tight of a filter. You have to have the horsepower to make it happen,” says Smith.
Additionally, Camfil designed the CamCleaner Horizontal with sport and community in mind. Different from large and loud commercial air cleaners, the CamCleaner Horizontal is a small module which can easily be suspended from the ceiling or rest atop a climbing wall. The CamCleaner Horizontal also makes very little noise, clocking in at just 63-77 decibels―the noise level of a crowded room or restaurant.
Climbing Business Journal is an independent news outlet dedicated to covering the indoor climbing industry. Here you will find the latest coverage of climbing industry news, gym developments, industry best practices, risk management, climbing competitions, youth coaching and routesetting. Have an article idea? CBJ loves to hear from readers like you!