Breathing, eating, fornicating and dying. On every surface humans touch resides a vast metropolis of ancient microbes narrowly evolved to efficiently prey on our flesh.
There is no better example of this than at the gym. Scattered throughout the Ferris State University Student Recreation Center and fitness facilities across the nation are seemingly innocuous plastic spray bottles filled with an unknown liquid solution. To germs, these spray bottles may as well be Apache attack helicopters equipped with hellfire missiles.
“We are in the business of sweat,” Ferris Recreation Center Director Cindy Horn said.
Sweat works with the fabric of our clothes, our skin, the texture of the surfaces we touch and the friction our bodies create during a workout to create a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and viruses such as the flu, staphylococcus (staph) and candida.
Between 500 and 1,700 students enter the URec facility each day to exercise, according to Horn. She cautioned that this number accounts for only ID swipes, indicating the figure may be higher. Visitor numbers tend to peak in the fall, after the new year, during intramural leagues and right before spring break.
Coinciding with the new year’s resolution rush—where patron counts remain steady at around 1,500 daily—is the annual influenza outbreak.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the flu is spread between humans at distances of up to six feet and can be spread one day before symptoms appear. Infected individuals release droplets of the virus when they sneeze, cough, blow their noses or talk. These droplets enter the human body through mucous membranes and open skin.
Studies have shown that the flu virus can remain active on surfaces for two to eight hours. Between 3,000 and 49,000 people die annually from influenza-related complications.
Other viruses such as staphand candida are often carried by healthy individuals with no symptoms and spread easily to children and the immune-compromised through human contact and surface contamination. Such viruses are responsible for localized skin infections, and staph infections can also infect blood, bones and the lungs, causing pneumonia.
While 31 million Americans receive medical attention for the flu each year, more than 60 percent of the population does not get flu vaccines.
In fitness facilities, Americans equally disregard influenza prevention by not taking the time to wipe down machines before and after use.
URec employee Trista Williams, Ferris senior social work major, has first-hand experience with this trend.
“I have worked here for two years and have generally found that people are more conscientious upstairs compared to the downstairs weight room,” Williams said. “I don’t know if it’s just the guys or what.”
Fellow URec employee Emily Roberts, a junior medical diagnostics major, agreed with Williams’ observations.
“Never [wipe down equipment] in the weight room,” Roberts said. “Girls are way more likely to clean machines.”
According to Cindy Horn, URec director, it is gym policy to clean all machines at the beginning and end of each day.
However, Horn admitted exercise mats, basketballs, pool cues, exercise balls and other gym equipment often elude cleaning by both patrons and gym employees.
Williams said each shift requires employees to clean select machines according to a system to ensure that every machine is cleaned at some point during the day.
“Everyone should wipe down the machines and have respect for others,” Alex Ibraa, Ferris freshman nursing major, said. “Sometimes I forget; it happens. I notice people who don’t clean the machines all the time, but you don’t call them out on it or anything.”
If Ibraa finds the cleanliness of the URec today upsetting, he might have been shocked by the facility’s state 10 to 15 years ago, according to Horn.
“Back in the day, you would go to use a machine and there would be a puddle of sweat from the last person. It was the patrons’ responsibility to bring towels,” Horn said. “When I first came on as recreation director, we used alcohol wipes, and at the end of the night, all the machines were scrubbed with a bucket of soap and water.”
Since then, Horn said the URec has stopped using alcohol wipes and switched to a green cleaning solution with towels. According to her, this has saved Ferris $8,000 annually.
The solution contains ethyl alcohol at a concentration of around five percent, in addition to proprietary formulas unique to the manufacturer, State Industrial Chemicals.
A customer service representative from State Chemicals said the formula has a “125 kill claim,” an industry term indicating how many known harmful microbes the product kills.
Included in the kill claim are viruses such as the bird flu, swine flu, HCV, herpes, HIV, staphylococcus, athlete’s foot and other microbes commonly found on surfaces. Though no disinfectant kills 100 percent of germs, the ecolution disinfectant is guaranteed to perform its stated kill claim after sitting on a surface for ten minutes, according to the representative.
Despite advisories from the government and media sources about the flu epidemic and the importance of preventative measures, many do not listen due to time restraints, inconvenience, and in some cases, disregard for the well-being of others.