Last month there was a deadly gas leak at a Dupont facility in La Porte, Texas. Four people died from asphyxiation when a bad valve let huge quantities of the noxious gas methyl mercaptan leak into an area where employees were working, and their deaths would have been preceded by a nasty, familiar odor—one that's present in rotting cabbage, and, yes, your butt.
Farts contain not just methyl mercaptan, but other asphyxiants like methane and dimethyl sulfides. Here's the question though: Let's say you were John Doe from Se7en, and farting were a deadly sin. Could you actually kill someone with farts?
I'm pretty strict on what I mean when I say "kill" someone with farts:
- The victim would have to be an otherwise healthy person—no farts so smelly they make your grandma have a heart attack.
- You would have to use some combination of farts and a closed space or mask, but nothing that could be considered a weapon—no plastic bags over the head.
- You would have to be able to kill them within a few hours for it to be considered a fart-related death—no infections caused by airborne intestinal bacteria.
- The farts themselves would have to deliver the fatal injury—no farting out so many greenhouse gasses you cause climate change–related natural disasters.
Here's what I discovered:
Farts Can Be Toxic
Estimates vary on exactly how much of every gas is in every fart, because what you've been eating determines what's in your digestive tract—apart from a very small percentage of smell-producing gasses that make up a kind of smell signature.
The gasses in your farts that can kill someone are called asphyxiants, which are very different from cytotoxic agents like mustard gas, which damage your cells on contact. Nitrogen, a gas that can be used to execute prisoners is the asphyxiant found in greatest quantity in farts. Flammable methane is another such asphyxiant, and can constitute a large percentage of your fart gas.
Your farts also don't have much oxygen in them. The National Institutes of Health told me they don't keep data on the subject, so I had to get my data from wacky trivia books. Still, reliable sources say the oxygen in your farts comes entirely from air you swallow while you eat and drink, making it a small percentage, much of which is absorbed by your intestines during the digestive process. The best estimate I can find is that 3 to 5 percent of a fart is oxygen.
So if you were breathing pure farts, you would very quickly use up the oxygen they contain, and the methane and nitrogen would displace the oxygen anyway.
It Would Take Multiple People
But could you hold someone under your bedsheets and asphyxiate them by farting? No—you can see just how little gas there actually is in a fart from the video above. But there are known specifics about the volume of farts.
The authority on this is Dr. Michael D. Levitt, chief of staff at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who has published perhaps 300 papers on the subject. He concluded that there's only about 110 milliliters of gas in a normal fart. Still, a legendary, once-in-a-lifetime super-sized fart might just be enough to fill someone's lungs—an average person's lung capacity is around 500 milliliters. But you have to think bigger than that.
How About a Convoluted, Horror Movie-Type Scenario?
Fart gas is unbreathable air, and if you were able to fill a scuba tank with it by saving up your farts for a year, and then make someone breathe the resulting gas, they would die from lack of oxygen. That would be a step removed from killing someone with farts , though, and the puzzled detectives on the case might not even reach the conclusion that the gas was farts, unless they smelled it.
Any decent movie killer who used farts as a weapon would require that the victim be aware of the farts' exiting the rectums of the farter, or more likely farters. I'm imagining a cafeteria full of captives who had just eaten a bunch of gas-causing food. I asked the National Institutes of Health what foods cause farts, and they pointed me toward meals rich in short-chain carbohydrates, causing excessive, gas-producing fermentation in the gut. "Fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides, polyols, fructose and lactose," would be the menu in a fart factory—a bunch of onions, baby food, and milk, basically.
Isolating the farts from the outside atmosphere would be tricky though, requiring a vacuum seal around the butts of the captives having their farts harvested. Does such a thing exist? Yes. It's called a space toilet.
Though not designed to capture farts, a space toilet could theoretically do the job, although it would take a little bit of a redesign, and the first few farts would have oxygen-rich air mixed in. But over the course of six hours strapped to a space toilet, a person would produce about ten ounces of gas, according to Dr. Levitt.
Once the fart tubes, connected to a roomful of people, were feeding their farts to your victim's breathing mask, asphyxia would start pretty quickly. Simulations of inert gas asphyxiation (in which no oxygen at all was present) conducted by The International Humanitarian Hypoxia Project, show that "after just two or three breaths of nitrogen, the oxygen concentration in the lungs would be low enough for some oxygen already in the bloodstream to exchange back to the lungs and be eliminated by exhalation."
The victim would feel no unusual sensation, since the urgent need to gulp air when you hold your breath comes from buildup of carbon dioxide, not lack of oxygen. "Loss of consciousness may be accompanied by convulsions" the Hypoxia Project pointed out, "followed by cyanosis and cardiac arrest."
An oxygen-deprived brain takes about seven minutes to die, which by my calculations would require a formidable 605 farts if the victim continued breathing until brain death, which is unlikely. But since 3 to 5 percent of the gas you're using is oxygen it might take a bit longer. This would require your fart factory to contain hundreds of people with major gas.
It would take a large room of people strapped to space toilets, piped into your victim's breathing mask, or into a gas chamber. But in that convoluted, horror movie–type scenario, the result is a dead person. Who died from breathing farts.
I hope you're happy.
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