fart airplanes
December 24, 2014

BREAKING (wind): Why we fart more on planes

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Airplanes are a regimented kind of world, where most of us are aware that we will be cooped up with our fellow passengers for a number of hours and should probably observe some general etiquette, being polite and friendly where possible. And yet for some reason our bowels disagree. If the body were an airliner, they would be the passenger that gets drunk and shouts at the crew or tells his neighbor about his recent surgery before taxiing has started.

Why is it that a lot of us have a suddenly increased need to break wind just as we enter a world of quiet order, and just as we are in very close proximity to complete strangers? A Danish doctor has laid out some of the reasons, and thinks he may even be able to help.

Jacob Rosenberg, a clinical professor at the University of Copenhagen, was getting off a plane when he noticed the crumpled empty water bottle in his bag. He realized that it must have expanded as a result of low pressure while in the air, and contracted when the plane landed. Having noticed that his stomach seemed bloated when he flew, it occurred to him that what had happened to the water bottle was also going on with the gases inside his stomach. He chatted to some drinking buddies about his thinking and went on to write a paper about it.

Speaking to the BBC’s David Robson, Rosenburg said: “Since then, I’ve noticed just how much flatulence you have on a flight. Which is very much.” He adds that: “When you talk to people, they have all experienced a bad odor at some time.”

The physics of it are simple, Rosenberg explains. In day-to-day life on the ground, we all fart around 10 times a day, releasing an eye-watering (sometimes literally) 1 litre of gas. In the air, that 1 litre suddenly needs to fill a 30 percent bigger volume. “The pressure drops and the air must expand into more space,” Rosenberg clarifies. More than 60 percent of pilots report feeling regular abdominal bloating, which is much higher than the average office worker. When we think about what is going on in their guts, and our own, it is no wonder that discomfort ensues.

What can be done? Well, airlines are already taking steps, such as using charcoal in air filters because charcoal is great at absorbing odors. They also use food that is easy to digest and less likely to cause us problems, because gases are produced by food that has failed to be absorbed by the gut and is fermented by bacteria, which produce nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen along with more odorous, sulphurous compounds. On the flip side, foods known to reduce flatulence include fish, rice, dairy products and strained fruit juice because they leave less waste in the gut for fermentation. Airlines tend to use food that is low in fibre but high in carbohydrates, and there is a reason why cabbage soup is rarely on the menu.

Rosenberg proposes some more extreme measures, although he may not be 100 percent serious. He suggests that charcoal could be woven into the fabric or airline seats or put into blankets. Alternatively, a real stretch, people could be screened at airport security with a breath test that identifies odors revealing themselves by leaking upwards before they leak outwards later. Passengers testing positive could then be placed in a special section in the cabin. The politician that signs off on that one would be facing a lot of hot air of their own, though, and it is pretty unfair to ask the cabin crew to smile and say, “Stinky section sir? Left aisle and straight down.”

Until we are in a situation where the Department of Homeland Security is protecting us from farts, there are steps of our own we can take, such as wearing fart-filtering underwear. According to the BBC, the American Journal of Gastroenterology reports that charcoal-lined underwear absorbs nearly 100 percent of the odor, compared to removable (and reusable) pads placed within trousers, which only absorb about 70 percent. How much do you care about your fellow passengers?

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