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2013 Spring Issue 2 (April 19, 2013)

Some Information About Flatulence

April 23, 2013
By Claire Karban

Flatulence, passing gas, breaking wind, ass blast, butt thunder, farting. We all fart, although some of us a lot more than others. And we have all been in situations when we really need to fart, but we happen to be at a funeral, or on a first date. When this happens, we can either open the floodgates and let it rip or we can hold the gas in. Despite the social ramifications of this decision, some argue that it is actually unhealthy to hold farts in. I was pretty skeptical when I first heard this, so I decided to look into the matter. It turns out that there is evidence that holding farts in can cause some medical problems.

The composition of farts varies, but includes some mixture of indigestible compounds from your food and air molecules. Generally speaking, the higher the air to molecule ratio, the less stinky. This gas is passed through the intestinal system because of something called peristalsis. Peristalsis is a symmetrical contraction and then relaxation of muscles, very similar to the way an earthworm inches along. These muscle contractions in our intestines move food waste through our system.

Preventing peristalsis from emitting a fart can, apparently, cause some medical problems. These range from discomfort and bloating to indigestion and heartburn. ‘Holding it in’ has even been linked to diverticular disease, a common condition in the U.S. where pouches develop on the inner wall of the colon. These pouches can be very problematic when waste becomes trapped there.

A hilarious article published (in a peer-reviewed journal, I should note) last month looked specifically at problems with farting on airplanes. In the article titled “Flatulence on airplanes: just let it go,” the authors note that it is particularly challenging to hold in farts while flying. This is due to the change in air pressure experienced in the cabin of a plane. When an airplane is flying at, say, 33,000 feet above sea-level, the cabin is pressurized to the equivalent of about 8,000 feet above sea-level. At that elevation, there is less atmospheric pressure than there was on the ground, and the ideal gas law tells us that as pressure decreases, volume increases. That means that the volume of gas inside our intestines increases rapidly during take off, and has nowhere to go but out.

The increased pressure on airplane flights might actually make it more important to pass that gas, since the health problems associated with holding it in are partly a result of built up pressure in the gastrointestinal tract.

The authors propose the use of active charcoal in airplane seats as a way to mitigate the smelly ramifications of passengers passing gas rather than holding it in. Active charcoal is highly porous so it can trap gas, thereby neutralizing a bad smelling fart. Conveniently, active charcoal panty-liners are already available for all those other awkward situations.

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