Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Something Stinks.

by Benjo

A reader sent me a story that ran in Saturday's Times about the dangers of so-called "third-hand smoke." Sensing a suspicious familiarity, I walked down the hall to Edward's office. He was out, but a cursory glance at his desk revealed exactly what I'd suspected: he had submitted an almost identical story to the Times earlier in the week. They'd swapped one of their columnists' names for Edward's and printed it, verbatim--almost. The full, shocking tale is below.

The NYT story begins:
Parents who smoke often open a window or turn on a fan to clear the air for their children, but experts now have identified a related threat to children’s health that isn’t as easy to get rid of: third-hand smoke.
Now compare that to Edward's:
Parents with bad gas often open a window or turn on a fan to clear the air for their children, but experts now have identified a related threat to children’s health that isn’t as easy to get rid of: third-hand fart.
NYT continues:
“When their kids are out of the house, they might smoke. Or they smoke in the car. Or they strap the kid in the car seat in the back and crack the window and smoke, and they think it’s okay because the second-hand smoke isn’t getting to their kids,” Dr. Winickoff continued. “We needed a term to describe these tobacco toxins that aren’t visible.”
Whereas Edward writes:
"When their kids are out of the house, they might fart. Or they honk the backdoor horn in the car, so to speak. Or they strap the kid in the car seat in the back and crack the window and polish off a bit of the ol' stainless stool, and they think it's okay because the second-hand fart isn't getting to their kids," Dr. Winickoff continued. "We need a term to describe these flatulatory toxins that aren't visible."
Invisible farts aside, there is a very serious threat underlying Edward's article. And here we see the gravest of NYT's crimes. While the article is liberal with alarming language--"threat"; "toxic"; "highly carcinogenic"--it is far less so with evidence. The few statistics it mentions deal with parents' perceptions of the risks of third-hand smoke, while omitting information about the number of children who actually got sick or died because of these perceptions.

Edward's reporting is far more robust in this respect:
A new study in Science finds a 50% greater risk that later in life, pre-teens who have previously been exposed to third-hand fart will exhibit behavioral disorders. These include weird snoring; excessive buffalo wing eating; and burial of hands in the sweatpants, with what the scientists call "a little too much hand movement."
* * *
I have to admit: I was torn about whether to post this. I loyally read and greatly respect the Times. But I was finally swayed when I read a couple sentences at the end of Edward's piece that drove home the gravity of this issue:
Scientists cite another consequence of fart residue: imitative behavior. Children who are exposed to third-hand fart are almost guaranteed someday to become farters themselves.
NYT, do the right thing. Publish the original story. The world needs to know.

2 comments:

Dave said...

Thank you for posting this I think it is important and needs to be addressed. As the brother of a heavy farter (he has tried to quit several times to no avail), I have long been concerned about third-hand fart. Though my evidence is only anecdotal I believe the dangers of third-hand fart are amplified by temperature. I am not referring to combustion or anything like that, but rather I think that after certain activation energy is met, third-hand fart becomes more potent and more dangerous.

In my teenage years my brother had developed a nasty habit after farting in the car: he would immediately turn the heat on all the way up. While it is unclear whether he was simply trying to clear the air or that this practice was actually some sort of sadistic joke, the dangers of third hand fart and increased temperature were very apparent. During one occasion when the minivan exceeded capacity (about 9 people in 7 seats) third-hand fart + heat induced vomiting, which in turn induced more vomiting. It is unclear how exposure in that event has effected those present later in life.

It is unfortunate that the times did not publish the original article.

Benjo said...

Dave,

Thank you for your touching post. Indeed, I have read that there is a correlation between heat and flatulent malodor. But as my old science professors used to remind me, correlation is not causation. And in fact, many say that the causal arrow points the other way. Clearly, this topic needs to be studied in more depth before any conclusions can be drawn. You can be sure that any such conclusions will be posted in this space as soon as their concluders release them.