Poop 3/7/19

By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Today for lunch I met a friend. Yes, I have a friend. Afterwards, we wanted to do something to spend a little more time together and stretch our legs on this cold day, so, even though neither of us particularly enjoy shopping, we figured we would go to a store and walk around.

As we wandered, I spied the game section and suggested we go and look at the games on the shelves. In that section, I spied, without even really looking, three pop-based games.

Three poop based games.

Poop has become a staple of our society, with the sudden popularity probably beginning with the now famous “poop emoji”. Now you can get poop, well, pretty much anything you want. Even poop stuffed toys.

We had kind of a fun conversation on this phenomena. She and I are about the same age, and recalled how taboo the subject of poop was when we were young. If you were truly risque, you might tell some fart jokes, or, dare I say it…own a “whoopy cushion.”

Farts are kind of fun in and of themselves, and surprisingly poorly understood. Pretty much everybody knows of the “silent but deadly”, where no sound is produced, but smell certainly is. My father had this one down! We would be sitting in the living room, gathered as a family (as we did back then) around our one household television (as was the custom back then), watching one of the three channels we had back then, because nobody watched the public access channel back then. Dad would suddenly start grinning, and none of us knew why. Well, eventually we knew why. It got to the point where every time he smiled, I just left the room.

It is commonly believed that the cause of the smell is methane. While methane is indeed a component of the noxious butt gases, as it turn out, methane is odorless. It’s unfortunate, because methane does diffuse faster than hydrogen sulfide, the primary cause of the odor. It is also the gas released by rotting eggs, which is why the two smells are so similar.

Poop is something with which I am all too familiar. Not long ago enough, I worked as a water treatment chemist. In a middle-sized city, I stood on top of the septic tank for the entire city, and opened it.

Ahhhhhhhh…it cleans out the sinuses…

In our fecal matter, the body passes out largely indigestible solids, such as fiber, and corn! Such an odd thing, but this is how some plants propagate. Seeds pass undamaged in the mastication process, and undigested. The seeds that are properly chewed help sustain the life of the animals spreading the seeds, and as the seeds are passed, the fecal matter in which they are embedded provides excellent fertilizer for the new plant.

Along with indigestible solids, oils are passe as well. By the time all of this reaches the processing plant, the solids have largely broken down, and a nice layer of oil has formed on top of the sewage. The oil is skimmed off early in the process, and burned as fuel to run the plant. The remaining solid matter is subjected to microorganisms basically grown on and attached to a matrix on a drum that slowly rotates through the water allowing the microbes to further break down the waste. This waste is then put into “settling pools”, where the solid is given the opportunity to settle to the bottom, and excess water can be skimmed off of the top. This water is sterilized and diluted so it can be added to streams safely without harming the ecosystem. The solid is treated with a “flocculation agent” that helps it clump. In a good process, the remaining solid is a little less than 80% water. This solid is largely organic matter, but is also very high in nitrate content, which is dried out into “cakes”. If dumped into a field, the nitrate concentration is so high that it would kill the field off, so it is sold to farmers, who in turn use it to fertilize their plants.

Yes, it fertilizes your food.

This post has taken an unexpected turn from the original intent. The point I was hoping to make is that I would make the point about taboo subjects. Now I see poop emojis, poop pillows, poop stuffed toys, poop games and it’s made cute and harmless. When I was very young, there was a very popular children’s book called “everybody poops.” It’s funny to think about our heroes pooping to this day, but if you’ll pardon the pun, they doo. I suppose the subject has been taboo for so long because, frankly it’s kind of gross. It smells bad, it can be dangerous with toxins, but it’s how our body disposes of those toxins to keep us alive.

I’ve often felt like it’s a bad thing to have taboo subjects. Let’s be honest here, there are times that our “movements” are a sign of trouble. If we teach our children to never discuss our movements, then why would they tell us when it looks wrong? These cute poops, then, might well end up being a service to our society, and maybe, just maybe, we can start discussing fecal matter as adults if we learn to accept it as…well…emojis and games.

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