Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's not only herring that fart, as everybody knows

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Ig Nobel Prizes are prestigious awards given each year at Harvard University to those engaged in strange scientific research. For instance, Canadian researchers received the award for showing that small farts, known as fast repetitive ticks (FRTs), can be lethal. But why would the Vatican receive such an award?

Rectal gas (flatus) happens to kings and the rest of us and is a constant reminder that we're all human. And when the urge to pass flatus happens in delicate situations, we would all prefer to be in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

It's never been easy to obtain medical information on flatus. After all, what doctor wants to be known as a specialist on farts? But my research reveals most people pass flatus 15 to 25 times a day.

Some deserve to be in the Guinness Book of Records, as flatus can reach mind-boggling amounts in those who are unable to metabolize lactose. One man with this problem had 141 rectal expulsions in a mere four hours after drinking two quarts of milk!

Very few escape a dinner party in time when they suddenly have a desire to pass flatus. I'd bet few have the courage to let nature take its course and the devil be damned. That is, unless they're fed up with dinner parties.

But is the withholding of flatus a wise medical decision?

Dr. Wynne-Jones, a New Zealand physician, says being polite on these occasions can cause long-term problems. He claims that increased pressure in the colon results in small herniations, (diverticula) in the bowel wall. But he doesn't mention whether he practises what he preaches. Perhaps he is an infrequent guest at dinner parties.

Genetics plays a role in the production of flatus. If a mother produces methane gas, there's a good chance her children will also manufacture it.

A lighted match was once placed near the trousers of a research participant while expelling flatus. The flame turned royal blue due to methane gas. But please do not try this experiment, as such situations can cause more than a blue flame.

Patients are always advised, prior to examination of the colon, to thoroughly cleanse the bowel with laxatives and enemas. One patient who had not done so was undergoing a sigmoidoscopy for removal of a benign polyp in the colon. Once the polyp was excised, the area was cauterized to control bleeding. But due to inadequate bowel cleansing, the collection of gas caused an explosion. This resulted in a 15 centimetre tear in the intestinal wall requiring surgical repair. The force blew the doctor across the room.

But can a fart kill? Researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia won their Ig Nobel Prize by researching the habits of Atlantic and Pacific herring. They were studying whether herring could hear the high-frequency sounds emitted by approaching killer whales. But during this research, they discovered herring produce fast, repetitive ticks -- small farts -- as a means of communicating with each other.

As herring have no dinner parties to attend, they can pass tiny farts any time they wish to do so. But there's a problem.

Killer whales can hear these expulsions and provide a speedy end to herring. So the conclusion is that farts can kill.

During one Harvard prize-giving, other Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded for outstanding ideas. For instance, the Vatican was given the economics Ig Nobel Prize for outsourcing prayers to India. But neither the Pope nor anyone from the Vatican came to accept the award!

Nor did anyone attend from a major soft-drink company in Britain to take home the Ig Nobel chemistry award for creating bottled water that contained twice the legal limit of bromate, a carcinogen.

Congratulations to Buck Weimer, of Pueblo, Colo., who won the Ig Nobel biology prize for his practical idea that can help many people -- charcoal-activated underwear. Weimer's wife, who has Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel problem, can now attend social functions, as this gas-eating underwear absorbs odours. For more information in the U.S., see the website www.under-tec.com or call 1-888-433-5913. In Canada, it's 1-719-584-7782

Next week: I could hear the sawing and hammering during surgery

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2012 A23

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