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Germ Warfare

Many hockey players, such as reporter Randy Boswell, are skating biohazards. With bacteria growing on their equipment at up to 3,440 times higher than acceptable levels, they can be a danger to themselves and others, reports Hugh Adami.

by Hugh Adami
December 11, 2004

'This is very bad," he said quietly, with a wary look that would make most wonder what horror they were about to be told.

Felix Skora unfolded the sheet of paper and slid it across the desk for his guest to see. The information was numbing.

Germ warfare. That's what Skora's Gatineau laboratory, Micro B, found in Randy Boswell's hockey bag after we took it there to see if the CanWest News reporter's soppy, rank equipment posed a hazard to his health and to those around him when he's on the ice trying, as he says, to be "an amalgam" of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.

Skora has no idea if Orr and Gretzky had as much disregard for the care of their equipment as Boswell does for his, but suggested some fast action be taken in the laundry room.

"There is a need to disinfect this equipment," Skora said. "Possibly with chlorine, alcohol and perhaps washed at a high temperature. Then, you should be able to eliminate the bacteria, the yeast, the mould."

What Micro B found lurking about Boswell's equipment was a cesspool of bacterial growth. "Very high concentrations," Skora explained.

Dr. Barry Dworkin, who writes a health column for the Citizen, said the bacteria could include numerous types of pathogenic germs, viruses and fungal substances, which can lead to a variety of illnesses and skin infections, some of which he has treated.
Sounds good so far, eh?

The lab didn't test for moulds and yeast, but Skora said the high bacterial concentrations would virtually guarantee their presence. In fact, said Dr. Dworkin, heat and humidity stimulate growth of fungal matter.

Dr. Dworkin also said that in extreme cases, dirty hockey equipment can be a habitat for the hepatitis B virus, which causes very high fever, weakness and jaundice. The virus is found in infected blood and other bodily fluids, such as sweat and saliva.

"It's disgusting," Dr. Dworkin said of what can lurk in a stinky hockey bag.

Having dirty sports equipment, he said, "is no different than not following routine hygiene like changing your socks and underwear." Bacteria- and viral-contaminated equipment is a very easy means of transmitting infection.

People who play sports are particularly susceptible to infections for various reasons: Germs grow when athletic equipment gets warm and moist; sweating softens the skin's main barrier, the stratum corneum, to the body; and germs enter the body from scrapes, cuts and bruises.

Professional hockey players, who are covered from head to toe in protective padding and sweat profusely during play, can be very susceptible to infection because many, for superstitious reasons, refuse to update their equipment.

But at least professionals, and players through the junior and university ranks, have training staffs responsible for the maintenance of equipment. It's those who play at the minor levels, children and beer-leaguers, who may have the most to worry about if they just leave their wet equipment in their hockey bags until it's time to play again.

Not hanging up wet, smelly equipment to dry is a major reason for severe bacterial contamination. While some may wash their jerseys, hockey socks and undergarments before the next game, leaving the rest of the stuff in the bag, like Boswell does, is not uncommon. There doesn't seem to be a reasonable explanation from those who let their equipment rot, other than offering the frequent refrain, "It's kind of a guy thing."

Allowing equipment to dry kills a lot of bacteria, although Dr. Dworkin suggested that cleaning equipment with disinfectants should also be part of the process, to make sure you're getting more bacteria and any spores left by dead germs. Because they're reproductive cells, spores can be activated by sweat or other moist conditions, which leads back to bacterial growth.

Athletic equipment is a very good host for germs because of the plastics and foam used in its construction. For example, bacteria can get trapped in crevices and pores of the materials and, if equipment isn't dried or cleaned properly, the germs can flourish, multiplying en masse.

It is highly recommended that players do not share any piece of equipment.

Health issues are not the only problem with dirty equipment.

"What (damages) equipment is bacteria and mould buildup," said Darren McCready, co-owner of Hockey Wash, a local company that specializes in cleaning sports gear in what basically is a huge washing and drying machine that uses special detergents and sanitizers.

"(Dirty equipment) eventually rots and falls apart. Equipment is expensive. By keeping it clean, you're protecting your investment."

Skora's lab, which primarily conducts microbiological tests for bacteria in wells, air, restaurants and food-processing plants, took bacteria samples from five-by-five-centimetre surfaces of eight pieces of Boswell's equipment -- helmet, shoulder pads, pants, skates, elbow pads, athletic support, gloves and shin pads.

A count of 25 or less of bacteria on hard surfaces (such as a restaurant counter) is considered acceptable under Quebec provincial guidelines. Anything above is considered a potential health hazard and disinfection is recommended. There are no guidelines to bacteria levels in hockey equipment, although Skora said the levels in Boswell's equipment were simply too high to ignore out of concern for infection.

Here's what the lab results show:

1. Shoulder pads: 480 bacteria that were reproducing on that equipment as we spoke. A concentration of 19 times higher than the acceptable quota under the provincial guidelines.

2. Helmet: 750 (30 times higher)

3. Skates: 2,800 (112 times higher)

4. Pants: 4,500 (180 times higher)

5. Elbow pads: 6,200 (248 times higher)

6. Athletic support: 9,400 (376 times higher)

7. Gloves: 79,000 (3,160 times higher)

8. Shins pads: 86,000 (3,440 times higher)

In other words, in Boswell's equipment, the lab found 188,650 living, reproducing bacteria on just eight samples, measuring 25 square centimetres each. How many more were there?

Three, four million?

Boswell's equipment has since been cleaned by Hockey Wash. Micro B tested the equipment afterward, and Skora says the results were amazing compared with the first tests.

Every sample taken showed counts of bacteria to be within the standard set by Quebec's environment ministry for hard surfaces -- 25 or less. There was no sample taken in the second test of Boswell's skates: he didn't want them cleaned for fear that the slightest change after being washed might throw off his game.

Here are the result from the second lab test:
1. Shoulder pads: 18

2. Helmet: 22

3. Skates: No sample taken.

4. Pants: 24

5. Elbow pads: 14

6. Athletic support: 8

7. Gloves: 16

8. Shin pads: 12

While your skin is already a host to some of the bacteria found in the contents of a hockey bag, and some of that bacteria on your skin is considered "good" because it kills harmful germs, Dr. Dworkin said the "bacterial load on dirty hockey equipment is greater than what your body is used to."

Thus, bacteria and viruses that get into your system, or that of the player you just made contact with, can make either one of you as sick as a dog or cause some excruciating pain.

Dr. Dworkin explained there are numerous ways for players to suffer or pass ailments caused by the bacteria and viruses. Most of it, he said, is through hand-to-hand contact.

One example is a player who adjusts a piece of equipment, such as his shoulder pads or athletic support, and then grabs a drink from a water bottle. Another player touches the same water bottle, either to move it or take a drink, and then adjusts his mouthguard, allowing the bacteria he picked up from the bottle to mix with his saliva, which carries it into his body.

Players colliding on the ice can send contaminated sweat showering into the air, and into the nasal or oral passages.

Skin infections occur as bacteria find their way under the skin through cuts, abrasions and bruises. Germs also get under the skin as it gets soft and prune-like from the body's heat and sweat.

Fungal infections such as athlete's foot also require heat and moisture to be stimulated.

Dr. Dworkin said various micro-organisms can cause problems once they get through the skin because they multiply rapidly in warm and wet cells.

Nasty illnesses that bacteria and viruses found in hockey equipment can cause include:

* Gastroenteritis (commonly know as stomach flu, which results in diarrhea and nausea);

* Other viral illnesses such as influenza, colds, pneumonia and chicken pox;

* Various skin infections, including impetigo, caused by either the streptococcus (strep) or staphylococcus (staph) germs;

* Diarrhea, bleeding and cramping, caused by a strain of E. coli, found in fecal matter and often ending up in the athletic support.

The streptococcus and staphylococcus families of bacteria can be extremely dangerous and are spread through broken skin. Staphylococcus aureas, or MRSA, is one that is particularly feared because it is resistant to certain antibiotics, can poison blood and even kill you. Sometimes, though, it causes no more than a mildly painful blister.

Recent cases of MRSA, considered a "superbug," have involved U.S. high school and university football players who developed infections through razor nicks from cosmetic body shaving. The infections spread through body contact.

Last year, several members of the NFL's Houston Texans developed MRSA infections and needed intravenous antibiotics.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikael Renberg had a run-in with group-A strep and nearly lost a hand as a result. While tying his skates for a practice in late December 2002, a lace opened a blister on his left hand. The hand became so infected the next day that he developed a 104-degree fever and ended up in a Vancouver hospital, where doctors considered amputation over fears that the infection could spread and kill him.

Boston Bruins star Joe Thornton was put on intravenous antibiotics in January 2003, after he fell and bruised his left elbow during practice and developed an infection a few days later. It was believed that the infection came from bacteria in his elbow pad or from bacteria in his hand, which he transmitted by rubbing the bruise.

Some other NHL players who suffered bad infections in recent years include Detroit Red Wings forward Darren McCarty (elbow), Leafs goalie Eddie Belfour (hand) and former San Jose Sharks defenceman Gary Suter (shoulder). Suter's infection ate a large part of one of the triceps muscle in his upper arm.

In September 2003, Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier was prescribed antibiotics after his right ankle became infected through scar tissue as he was breaking in a pair of skates.

Boswell? He claims he is as "healthy as a horse" and doubts he has ever suffered an illness related to his equipment.

Reprinted with the permission of the Ottawa Citizen