Monday, March 21, 2005


In Which A New Urban Legend Passes Into Being...

Long time readers know what a fan I am of urban legends, and my own humble contribution to the genre.

Well, I believe I witnessed a new one being born. Came to work the other day and heard one of my editors laughing hysterically. He had been on the phone with his dad, who related an amazing accomplishment of his over the weekend. I have confirmed, short of actually being in the dad's house when it happened, that this is a true story.

The dad is a great fan of spicy food. Well, apparently he over-indulged at a local Tex-Mex restaurant a couple evenings ago, to the extent that when he got home he had to make an extended visit to the bathroom. Suffice it to say, he was in there long enough to royally stink up the joint. Finally, he finishes his business, flushes, opens the bathroom door and heads down the stairs...when he hears an ear-splitting beeping from the upstairs hallway.

Apparently, his shit stank so badly he accidentally set off the smoke alarm!

Naturally, he was so proud of himself, he called his son to share this accomplishment (wouldn't you?). So we're both ROTFL now.

But later, I found myself wondering how this could have happened. Could a smoke detector really double as a stink detector? So the reporter in me started searching Web sites.

This might surprise you, but the whole issue of smoke alarms detecting flatulence and fecal gas is largely unaddressed in most of the FAQ files I searched. This strikes me as a gaping hole in the essential information that detector manufacturers and fire-safety advocates provide to the general public.

I did, however, learn that general-use household smoke detectors do not detect, um, natural gas (I would assume flatulence would be lumped in here too). But I also learned that you're not supposed to position a smoke detector anywhere near a bathroom.

A-ha! I thought.

Well, no. Turns out the reason you're not supposed to do this (so the manufacturer claims) is that hot steam from the sink or shower--but not, apparently, your ass--can trigger the alarm.

So I called the consumer service office for the largest smoke detector maker in the country. The person who took my call had a good sense of humor about my question, and promised to check with their engineers and get back to me, but somehow I think this is one press request that will get lost in the paperwork. Which is too bad. This could be an interesting new selling point for their product. Just think of all the fraternities, bachelors and 8 year old boys who would be begging to have one of these in their rooms!

Then I called a local fire department whose staff conducts home safety lectures at schools and such. Surely if anyone would have experimented with this hidden functionality in smoke alarms, it would be fire fighters. I was halfway through my question when the guy who answered hung up on me. But at least he was chuckling when he did.

You might think I'd be stymied at this point, but I had the great good foresight to marry a woman who spent 5 years as an environmental reporter, an environmental reporter who specialized in clean-air issues. And she turned out to be a veritable font of information on this topic, even going so far as to offer enough information to explain how this situation might have come to, uh, pass. But here I must assure you it was completely in spite of herself that my wife weighed in on the topic at all.

Basically, the working theory boils down to this (and any chemical engineering types, any scientifically minded people, in short anyone smarter than me--and that's pretty much ALL of you--should feel free to weigh in here, if need arises):

Most standard, battery-powered smoke detectors are devices that detect not smoke per se, but air particles that indicate the presence of smoke or fire.

Intestinal gas, particularly Tex-Mex fueled intestinal gas, contains any number of particles including microscopic amounts of fecal matter (yikes!) and sulfur. If it didn't, it wouldn't stink.

Sulfur is a combustion byproduct, and, according to my sources, one of the particles that may well be picked up by a smoke detector. Makes sense, right?

Except my friend's dad would have had to produce a shitload of sulfur for the detector to pick it up.

Oh wait, I guess that's exactly what he did.

Another theory is that the dad's detector is old, and may well be contaminated with dust or other particles. Dust build-up is a common reason for smoke detectors to malfunction and the older the units get, the more likely they are to go off for no reason. So this all could have been just one freak coincidence.

But I prefer to think the dad stank the detector out.

Does anyone else have a story like this? I'd really like to know. If one of you finds something like this online or in your personal memory, I beg you--in the interests of science and the greater good!--to mention it in comments or forward it to me. I searched around and couldn't find any mention of this happening, either as a true story or as an urban legend.

If that's true, then you saw it here first. Remember that when you start spreading the story around (and I heartily encourage you to do so).

If wants to validate this one or, er, blow holes through it, just email me, boys. I'll put you in touch with the dad himself. I'm sure he'll be only too proud to confirm the story. After all, by now the guy must think he's pretty hot shit.

I know I do.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Ha! No clue. I used to have a smoke alarm that went off randomly, but hey, maybe it wasn't as random as I thought.

Re: Hamilton Beach PM maker. That's the one this diner uses! It's wonderful. 86th and Columbus.

Re: my picture. It's a cupcake. And I don't think my roommate noticed the finger. At the time, I don't think I did either.
Also, I commented on the final chapter ("In which alternate endings aren't always happy"), but I think I was late in commenting, so just in case you didn't see it, I don't want you to think that I didn't read it. I did.
I only wish I had a story like that one! Great detective work *sniffing* out the truth there.

I am so glad I did not have a mouth full of hot coffee when I started reading this.

"Intestinal gas, particularly Tex-Mex fueled intestinal gas, contains any number of particles including microscopic amounts of fecal matter (yikes!) and sulfur."

I'd classify that as something I could've happily gone my whole life without knowing!

About the stuff you mentioned in my comments... I imagine that strange dust = spores. Bet that makes you feel better huh? Now we're even. :)
Ha! Funny that we were simultaneously commenting. I, for one, like the new Xanga ID card picture. It's hilarious!

It is truly disgusting that we emit microscopic pieces of feces when we pass gas. I wish I didn't know that.

In fact, I'm going to go ahead and call it an urban legend.
I'm sorry to inundate you with my comments, but I just read the hilarious entry from the day before about your tumultuous time taking care of the kids. It's too bad that I'm in the office and pretending that your blog is actually a Microsoft Word document, because the whole time I was stifling back laughter that I would have preferred to make audible. Crap, I hear my boss coming.
Ummm...I'm just curious. How did you word your question to all these people you called up? I'm sure they don't get too many of those kinda calls! Anyway, absolutely hilarious - although that stuff about "intestinal gas" is just plain disgusting.
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