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03 March 2011

Who asked that?!

EnviroHealth covers a wide range of weird and wonderful issues, from global warming to maggots. Questions from readers are often correspondingly... interesting.

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EnviroHealth covers a wide range of weird and wonderful issues, from global warming to maggots. Questions from readers are often correspondingly... interesting. Here are a few choice examples, taken from our EnviroHealth Forum:

Q: Does farting contribute to global warming?

A: Yes! But not the human kind - the amounts of gas we produce aren't thought to be large enough to harm the environment.

If you're a cow, however, it's another matter: the methane gas produced by the digestive process in cattle is thought to make a significant contribution to global warming.

Methane is one of the "greenhouse gases" that trap heat in the atmosphere. Cattle produce large amounts of methane, and there are large numbers of cattle, because of the enormous human appetite for their meat and milk.

Other ruminant animals (i.e. ones that 'chew the cud') like sheep also add significantly to atmospheric methane, as do, weirdly enough, termites!

Q: Eating couch sponge. I have a problem I don’t know if I need to see a psychologist. My problem is that I eat sponge from the couches, everywhere I see it so please help me.

A: I think you may have a medical condition called 'pica': this is a type of eating disorder, when a person feels a need to eat non-food substances. Different people with the condition eat different substances: some eat soil, some paper - and the list goes on. Foam rubber/ couch sponge is also on the list.

There are several possible reasons why you have this condition, and you definitely need to see a doctor to find out the cause and to get treatment. Some people with pica are lacking a nutrient in their diet; but it may be caused by an underlying mental health problem.

You could see a GP about this, who could refer you to a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Please don't put off getting help; eating foam rubber/ couch sponge can make you very ill, and it is important to get the underlying cause treated.

Q: Health risks of urine. Please advise on the health risks of 'urinated' plants in the office environment. I have received a complaint about staff members who have been urinating in the plants after hours. I need to know what are the health risks involved as this will be part of their disciplinary hearing. Whilst the plants have now been removed, it apparently has been going on for some time already.

A: The associated health risks of this highly anti-social practice are, you’ll be pleased to know, minimal. Urine is generally sterile, and rarely contains infectious organisms. In human excreta, the risk for infection is overwhelmingly from the faeces. (Urine can sometimes become contaminated with small amounts of faeces, however.)

The fact that the culprits urinated into pot plant soil, with which people are unlikely to come into direct contact, lowers the already low risk even further.

Q: I think I ate a maggot. What will it do to me and do I need to see a doctor?

A: It's unlikely it was a maggot if you were eating fresh food; it was probably some other kind of insect larva. But either way, swallowing one is unlikely to have caused you any serious harm. It was almost certainly destroyed by the gastric acid in your stomach.

If people eat food containing maggots, it’s the bacteria in the rotting food that might make them sick, not really the maggots. I don't think you need to see a dcotor, unless you experience any symptoms - upset stomach etc.

Q: When I die I would like to leave my remains to the vultures. Surely it is my constitutional right to do so. What are legal procedures one follows to get permission/a licence for this and are there suitable venues?

A: As far as I am currently aware it is unfortunately not legal to do this in South Africa, and I think most countries. To have a “sky burial”, as this is poetically called, you'd need to travel to Tibet or India and probably have to join the Zoroastrian faith, which might very tricky or even impossible for a foreigner...

But it is commendable that you’re considering more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional burial.

Q: High-pitched noise pollution: I have particularly sensitive hearing, and whistling, squeaky doors, and all sorts of high pitched sounds, including children who scream at high levels put me in a really difficult situation. Whistling in particular seems very popular these days - many TV adverts use it and I have an instant reaction, the way someone else reacts to putting their hand on a hot stove. Most people think my reaction is just "annoyance", but it is a form of pain.

A: You may have a condition called hyperacusis - over-sensitivity to certain sounds - which has various causes, and it's worth speaking to a doctor about it. But hyperacusis or not, noise pollution of all kinds should be taken more seriously. Even for those of us whose hearing is not as sensitive as yours, the noises you describe are highly annoying and contribute to the stress of modern life (whistling is one of my worst!)

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, updated March 2011

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