Strange but true: Why human waste should not be wasted


Q: When does "flushed with success" take on perhaps its most literal overtones?

A:When it's the story of human waste, solid and liquid, being used as fertilizer or chemical replacement in agricultural soils around the world, says Fred Pearce in "New Scientist" magazine. In most places, sewage trucks discharge their cargo into streams and lakes, adding to local pollution. But in Bangalore, India, for example, the "honey-suckers" head for farms outside the city, where their stinking loads go to fertilize vegetables or coconut and banana trees. "The farmers pay good money for human waste; it produces bumper crops. For them, it is sweet." This actually revives an older tradition of sewage widely spread onto urban "sewage farms." "Traditionally it was collected in the dead of night to avoid offending people's sensibilities and was used to grow vegetables and other crops."

Realization is growing that flushing sewage into rivers is a ludicrous waste of nutrients that could go to help feed humanity. Consider that a person produces some 500 liters of urine and 50 kilograms of feces a year, containing the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that plants need to grow. Scale this up and the world's population excretes 70 million tonnes of nutrients annually. And it's safer than you might think: Urine is normally free of disease-causing pathogens, while soils help filter and clean bacteria found in feces.

As Pearce argues, "We should be recycling our feces and urine in the same way we recycle scarce metals. In some places, that will involve much more advanced technology." Even in the developed world, "flush and forget" should end.

Q: Did calling junk mail "spam" hurt the sale of Spam?

A: Our thanks to Amanda Green and Matt Soniak of "Mental Floss" magazine for that "pressing question," the kind that keeps deep thinkers awake at night. To get some sleep, begin with the fact that Hormel Foods introduced its "delicious portmanteau of spiced ham" in 1937. The email version, on the other hand, is harder to trace. Internet legends peg the term "spam" to a Monty Python sketch and early chatroom banter. "When Usenet administrator Richard Depew in 1993 accidentally posted the same message to a discussion group 200 times, a computer nerd named Joel Furr called it ‘spam,' and the term caught on." Though the canned meat titan lost a 2007 trademark lawsuit with the software company "Spam Arrest," Hormel saw its revenues shoot up by 24 percent in the first quarter of 2013, and it recently launched its first digital campaign, "meaning we could be on the brink of getting spam from Spam."

Q: He was 82 when he died of complications from a stroke and heart attack, on the very day in 2002 that he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, having already been enshrined in the Automotive Hall of Fame. To a curious world, his family offered assurances that "Yes, he had used it every time." Used what?

A: Hired by Volvo as its first safety engineer in 1958, Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin took barely a year to devise, engineer and test a DOUBLE-STRAP, TRIPLE-ANCHOR seat belt, cited as one of the eight most important patents of the century, says editor and contributor Randy Alfred in the book "Mad Science." "It was simple and efficient." It restrained the upper body and could be buckled securely with one hand while keeping the buckle away from the passenger's soft abdomen. Previous auto seat belts hadn't restrained the upper body and often even caused internal injuries in high-speed crashes.

The three-point belt started saving lives almost immediately, with numbers now exceeding a million! And as the Bohlin family assured the world after his death, "He had buckled up every time!"

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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