Thursday, December 26, 2013

Altruistic Gas, or, How Mary Roach Saved My Marriage

Mary Roach (author of Stiff, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and, most recently, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal) is the funniest science writer. It would be difficult to write a book about the alimentary canal that is not at least a little bit funny (think back to the 1930 book Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera by George Chappell), but it took Mary Roach to do it right. Imagine Dave Barry as a science teacher, and you get the picture. Here is a potpourri (or digest) of some of her topics: Fletcherizing, which was the fad for chewing each bite of food hundreds of times into a slurry, supposedly for more efficient absorption of nutrients; research at U.C. Davis, using fistulated cows, which may allow various kinds of agricultural waste such as lemon pulp and almond hulls to be used as cattle feed; all of the kinds of things that prisoners smuggle in their rectums and why; pyroflatulence and the origin of the myth of fire-breathing dragons; the early twentieth century craze for colonic irrigation; Elvis Presley’s megacolon; and the curious case of the holy water enema. (Enema, as you know, is the opposite of friend.) I learned some interesting new words along the way: for example, borborygmus is the gurgling sound of an active intestine, and alvine means intestinal. The trivia are priceless also: for example, the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology is in Flushing, New York, and among the medical researchers who have studied intestines are Dr. Colin Leakey and a certain Dr. Crapo.

One item that especially caught my attention was her description of a nutritional supplement product called Devrom. It is a product that eliminates the odor from intestinal gas. Even the most well-stocked drug stores seem to not carry it; I had to order it from Amazon. (I have no financial connections with the company that markets it.)

I had assumed, like most people, that you need to take Beano to avoid polluting your immediate environment with fragrant flatulence. But this is not what Beano does. Most intestinal gas is hydrogen, which is odorless, as is the methane produced by about one-third of people. These gases come from bacterial metabolism. The bacteria ferment complex carbohydrates that our intestinal enzymes cannot digest, and hydrogen is a by-product of bacterial activity. Beano provides an enzyme that digests these carbohydrates without producing gas. Beano will therefore relieve you from the pressure of gas, but only from gases that have no odor. The odor of flatulence is caused by such gases as hydrogen sulfide, which are produced in minute quantities (0.01 percent) but to which the human olfactory nerves are exquisitely sensitive (down to 20 parts per billion). The smelliest components of flatulence are the mercaptans, which also contain sulfur. (I have sometimes thought that the sciences need mascots and superheroes. A few years ago, the American Society for Microbiology was promoting Mighty Microbe and Microbe the Magnificent, but I think Biofilm Boy might be a better mascot. And for organic chemistry, what could be better than Captain Mercaptan? Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s…phew!...Captain Mercaptan!)

You would think there would be a market for a supplement that specifically targeted the production of sulfur gases. At the very least, you would expect Devrom to be at least as popular as Beano. But I have never seen an advertisement for it. Mary Roach speculated about what the reason for this might be. Her informants suggested that it was because most people are not bothered by the scent of their own gas; it is only other people’s gas that bothers them. There appears to be no significant market for something whose only purpose is to make your gas less bothersome to other people. In fact Devrom is used mostly by people who want their ostomy pouches to be less offensive to their caretakers.

That is, Devrom is a product that makes your flatulence altruistic.

I have for years tried to find ways to make my own emissions less bothersome to my long-suffering wife. Various things have helped me to eliminate almost all of it: I now eat healthier food (not including beans) and have lost weight. (In fact, red meat is the main cause of flatus odor.) But the last few puffs of miasma keep coming. Now, with Devrom, I can uninhibitedly release bacterial by-products without bothering anyone around me.

To make myself less offensive to my fellow humans is a direct source of pleasure to me. Alas, products whose sole effect is altruistic have only a limited market appeal. We don’t want to spend money on everyday altruism that brings us no recognition. We are generous to other people, when we get recognition for it; but no one wants recognition for taking pills that freshen their flatulence. We will open doors for one another in public, but if it costs money (about 20¢ per pill), we won’t do it. It is possible that the sales figures for Devrom could be used as a measurement of altruism.

Meanwhile, have a blessed New Year as you go with the flow. New Year’s Resolution: out with Beano, in with Devrom!

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