Let’s get the sordid details out of the way.
On May 9, Susan Allan of Kelowna, British Columbia, was driving home with her son after having lunch with her mother in nearby Peachland. The Weather Network’s historical records say that it was a mild 18 C (64 F) that day. While stopped at a red light near a local golf course Allan happened to look up through her car’s open sunroof. This, she and her boy would realize moments later, was a very bad and very smelly mistake.
Allan and her son were inundated with feces that she believes fell from a plane. The material was cold to the touch, blue-brown in colour, grainy, and smelled of chlorine and feces, “Like a clean poop smell if that’s possible,” Allan told me.
“I’m telling you: When this hit our vehicle, there was so much that it felt like a whole pile of mud falling from the sky,” Allan recounted over the phone. “You could see it hitting the vehicle. And when it was hitting our faces, the first thing my son said to me was that it felt freezing cold and that it smelled like, pardon the pun, shit.”
“My son threw up, and we had so much in our faces,” she continued. “Both of us, our faces were covered in poop.” Her eyes burned immediately, she told me, and she drove a couple blocks to a car wash to get hosed down. Allan sent me a photo of a signed letter that she said came from her doctor, which stated that she had conjunctivitis in both eyes—that is, a double serving of pink eye.
Allan’s story is not unique in Canada. This year alone, there have been well over a dozen reported cases of poop mysteriously falling from the sky, and not just in British Columbia. On Wednesday, the CBC reported that a family in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, was sitting out on their deck when they and their home were sprayed with poop from above.
“I believe that this is a cover-up by the government"
Transport Canada, the government department that oversees federal transportation policy and regulations, has received 18 reports of people or their vehicles being struck by "a substance" from above and has investigated all of them, a spokesperson told me, including Allan’s.
Allan received an apology from Transport Canada after she reported the incident in early May (“I’m truly sorry that this happened,” a spokesperson told Allan in an email shared with Motherboard), but no answers for what rained down on her that day.
There has been no explanation, official or otherwise, for the seemingly random sprayings. The intuitive answer to this puzzle is that the poop is coming from airplanes flying overhead, a phenomenon known as “blue ice”—named for the colour of the disinfectant that airplane bathrooms use—as Allan believes.
But Transport Canada says none of the 18 cases were aviation-related. “The department’s review has concluded that these incidents do not meet the description of blue ice and are therefore not aviation-related (i.e. the substance did not come from passing aircraft),” a Transport Canada spokesperson wrote me in an email.
Allan, who told me that she has spends a lot of time researching her incident—looking up flight patterns and other victims on social media, for example, and now she is seeking a private investigator. She does not believe Transport Canada’s assessment. “I believe that this is a cover-up by the government,” she said.
Blue ice gets its name from the blue disinfectant that’s added to human waste in airplane bathrooms. Waste from airplane passengers is supposed to be safely locked away in the air and only disposed of by ground crews, but mistakes happen.
“Blue ice incidents occur when the aircraft lavatory servicing hatch is not correctly closed and locked,” Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, wrote me in an email. “Employees are trained in the proper procedures, and may also be provided with checklists, but sometimes the doors are not correctly closed and locked.”
Transport Canada also admits that blue ice incidents are possible, but noted they are uncommon.
“In rare cases, malfunctions can cause leakage from the holding tank,” a spokesperson wrote me in an email. “At high altitudes (low temperatures), this leakage could freeze on the outside of an aircraft. As the aircraft descends, temperatures rise and the blue ice melts; pieces may detach themselves from the aircraft. These pieces of blue ice will either melt or remain in their solid state before hitting the ground.”
Why don't Allan’s story and the many others that have been reported in the media meet Transport Canada’s description of a blue ice incident? The department has only said that after reviewing the reported details, assessing local radar, and following up with local pilots and airports, it concluded that they “do not meet the description of blue ice.” A department spokesperson added in an email, “Blue ice incidents are very rare and distinct due to their blue colour.”
If a correct shade of blue is the issue, one expert that I spoke to wasn’t convinced. “Transport Canada is dismissing the idea that an aircraft is involved, largely based on the absence of the blue-tinged solution used in privies,” Robert Young, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of British Columbia, said in an email. “I wonder though, if a malfunctioning system could also be cutting off the supply of the solution.”
If you take Transport Canada at its word, another, possibly even more complicated question arises: If planes aren’t spraying swaths of the country with flecks of poop, well, what is?
Diligent scientific work is needed to determine the real source of the feces falling from the sky, Young said. In the spirit of scientific inquiry and keeping an open mind, samples need to be collected and the DNA analyzed and compared against different species. It could be birds, Young suggested.
“Different species have different poop compositions; for example, Canada geese leave semi-solid remains, but I think eagles, osprey, and herons have similar diets that could lead to similar waste discharges,” he wrote me in an email.
The bird theory was also floated by an employee at an appliance store in Kelowna that was sprayed with material from above in May. When I spoke to them over the phone, they requested that the business name be kept anonymous so as not to impact business due to association with this story.
“What I have is marks on the side of the building,” the employee said. “I don’t know what they’re from. I can absolutely attest to the fact that there’s funny-looking marks on the side of the building coming from above, but I don’t know more than that."
“We had a discussion with one of the other tenants in the area, and the thought was maybe it’s geese,” the employee told me, describing the marks as being "sort of a browny colour."
Allan doesn’t buy that theory. “To say that there are 30 or 40 birds that all poop at the same moment, and they’ve done it a dozen other times? And it’s a bluish grey? Their poop is white," she told me.
To get a better handle on the bird theory’s plausibility, I reached out to Peter Arcese, a professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Arcese leads a lab that studies the evolution of small populations and the indirect effects of humans on the conservation of birds and other animal species.
“It is hard to see what the volume was, but given the descriptions, hard to believe birds were involved,” Arcese wrote me in an email. “Geese eat grass for the most part; fish-eating birds do stink, but hard to imagine a formation of them given the volume implied.”
Transport Canada’s denial that planes were involved in Allan’s incident and others has made the experience more emotionally taxing for her, as she remains convinced that it was a plane.
“How can I prove that it actually happened?” Allan told me. “I’m fighting against the government, and chances are that I’m not going to get anywhere because it is the government; that’s the way I look at it.”
Poop is still falling from the sky in Canada
It’s unlikely that Allan, or anybody else, will get answers from Transport Canada any time soon. When asked about the department’s investigation procedure for these complaints, or if it could go into more detail about the reasoning for its conclusion, a spokesperson politely told me that Transport Canada is not offering any more comments on the matter.
Poop is still falling from the sky in Canada, as the recent incident in Yellowknife illustrates, and Susan Allan isn’t giving up.
Listen to our podcast about the world’s greatest mysteries that were solved by science.