Wednesday, June 08, 2005

 

Now we know why that snowman is abominable

New Scientist Breaking News - Mountaineers laid low by lack of toilet training: "They may be strong, skilled and brave, but mountaineers scaling North America's highest peak have yet to learn the basic rules for relieving themselves at alpine heights, a US study reveals. It warns that the lack of proper hygiene leads to severe cases of diarrhoea in almost a third of climbers - a dangerous affliction for high-altitude adventurers.
In 2005, about 1500 people will attempt to climb the 6200-metre Mount McKinley, or Denali, in Alaska. Rules for climbers state that all excrement must either be disposed of down a crevasse, or carried off the mountain in personal poop pails. But after five people descended the mountain with gastroenteritis an infection of the gut caused by ingesting faeces - in May 2002, Alaskan health officials began to question how well mountaineers were abiding by sanitation regulations.
A team stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and led by Joseph McLauglin from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surveyed 132 climbers in June 2002. They found that 29% had diarrhoea at least once on their average 18-day trek on the mountain. And 39% reported seeing snow contaminated with faeces in or near their camps. But that did not stop nearly a quarter of climbers from collecting snow for drinking water directly from camps. Only 16% of climbers said they always boiled their drinking water.
Furthermore, fewer than half said they always washed their hands after defecating, with 16% admitting using rocks and snow instead of toilet paper. A shameful 11% confessed to pooping directly into the snow.
McLaughlin was surprised at the amount of human excrement on the mountain, but he says the mountaineers apparent laziness is understandable.

Deadly errors

Being a mountaineer myself, I know how important it can be to minimise weight by conserving the amount of fuel one brings on a trip. It was not surprising to me to see such a low proportion of climbers that boiled their water,” he says. “Similarly, when it is freezing cold outside, washing hands with soap and water is not always a top priority.”
But such carelessness could be deadly, warns McLaughlin. “When climbers are exhausted at high altitude, errors, some of which can be very costly, become more common. Compound that situation with gastrointestinal illness and it is not difficult to extrapolate.”
Buddha Basnyat, medical director at the Nepal International Clinic in Kathmandu and an expert in alpine health, says that gastroenteritis is more common than altitude sickness for climbers in the Himalayas, mostly due to the prevalence of infections in the local population. “In the US, I think people aren’t used to boiling their water. But over here, if you don’t boil water there is almost a 100% risk of getting gastroenteritis,” he told New Scientist.
Basnyat says that by using an alcohol-based disinfectant, boiling water and carrying antibiotics, climbers can safely avoid the dangers and discomfort of diarrhoea at the top of the world."

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