A new study commissioned by the Association of British Climbing Walls has found that the presence of climbing chalk decreases the amount of Coronavirus on climbing holds. The study was done by a small team from the De Montfort University in Leicester.
Update July 25th: The initial press news article and press release were taken down but another article and press release have now been put up. They've removed language that suggested chalk "deactivates" the virus, clarified the research and the links to the research group and a bit of the methodology. As stated in our original coverage - we need to wait for the study to evaluate.
The initial press release from ABC reports on the methodology - "The presence of infectious virus on a plastic surface dusted with chalk was monitored over the course of one hour. The results indicated that the amount of infectious virus was reduced by around 99% immediately upon contact with the chalky surfaces. By comparison, the control test where no chalk dust was present, showed only a slight decline in infectious virus over these time periods."
As with all coronavirus news and scientific studies in general - this isn't full confirmation but just a small initial study. The full report will be released in August and further studies will need to done to confirm any results.
According to Professor Ian Hall speaking to the BMC, the study only had a sample size of three. The study didn't use the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the COVID-19 disease, but a similar coronavirus (human coronavirus OC43) that was also initially spread to humans from animals. This virus has been used in other studies to track how the current virus may spread.
What Is In Climbing Chalk?
Nearly all climbing chalk is made from Magnesium Carbonate - MgCO3. This is the broken down and powdered form of the mineral Magnesite. This helps climbers by removing moisture from the hands sweating. Climbers usually strap a small bag of chalk to their waist to apply when needed. Some brands contain other drying agents, or even Upsalite which is a higher grade Magnesium that absorbs more liquid.
This study is a good sign that climbing indoors may be safer than previously thought. Concerns about particles of the virus lingering on holds, and on chalk particles on holds and in the air were previously high. Many gyms are now mandating the use of liquid chalk because of the possibility that the alcohol content in the chalk may help kill the virus similarly to the way standard isopropyl alcohol does.
Once the study has been published we'll hopefully know more about the chalk used and it's contents. How the chalk was applied, what holds were used and in what situations indoors would be good to know too. Hopefully further studies can be done to improve on the current knowledge.
The near impossibility of cleaning holds meant health concerns were quite high for climbing gyms and users. Gyms are generally quite crowded spaces that involve a fair amount of heavy breathing and sharing the same surfaces. Many outdoors brands have started producing reusable face masks for climbing and other activities to encourage their use.
ABC is the association that most climbing walls in the UK subscribe to for representation and standards in indoor climbing. They've been working to support climbing gyms by creating reopening guidelines and financial advice. They've also worked with the BMC to speak to the government about reopening timelines and heath and safety guidance.