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Question of the Day: Can Spicy Foods Kill You?

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I'm learning how to cook, which has been an adventure. The other night, after an encounter with some particularly spicy Italian sausage combined with even spicier barbecue sauce, my roommates and I found ourselves wondering if eating spicy foods could kill you. I mean, it can certainly cause intense pain and chest tightness; so can too much spicy food kill you?

Well, according to everything I could find on the internet, probably not. I could only dig up a few cases where pepper killed and none of them were typical. In one, a four-year-old with pica (a penchant for eating things that aren't necessarily nutritious) breathed pepper in and experienced respiratory failure. This medical study documents eight known cases of pepper deaths, seven of them homicides. Other research has shown that in high doses, consuming pepper can be lethal, but even I don't put enough pepper in our food to qualify as a lethal dose. Even spice allergies are generally mild. In fact, spiciness is pretty tame; it doesn't even kill your taste buds, since it registers in the pain sensors on our tongue. Spicy food doesn't even cause ulcers, as we used to think, but it actually can help secrete new stomach lining and help treat them.

Pepper spray is a different beast, though. It's not meant to be lethal (it's often hailed as the best non-deadly defense weapon), but it can be in extreme cases. Earlier this month, a Bel Air man died after police used pepper spray to restrain him after he threatened to kill his family. However, examiners said the effects of the pepper spray were exacerbated by his 550-pound girth and high stress, which led to breathing problems and made the pepper spray lethal. Also, asthmatics and people with intense allergies can experience respiratory problems from pepper spray, which can sometimes result in death.

pepper.jpgOverall, though, it looks like spiciness may do more good than harm. They may not kill people, but new research shows that they can help kill cancer cells. Spices can also help kill bacteria and prevent food from spoiling, which explains why some ancient cultures were so fond of piling on the pepper (I'm looking at you, Thailand). All in all, it looks like we ought to rethink the names of the world's hottest peppers "“ Bih Jolokia, which translates to "poison chili pepper" and Bhut Jolokia, which means "ghost chili pepper." Still, with an astronomic 855,000 and 1,001,304 Scoville units respectively (compared to 30,000 for cayenne and 300,000 for the habanero), it doesn't sound like anything I'll be using for salsa anytime soon.

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science
Geological Map Shows the Massive Reservoir Bubbling Beneath Old Faithful
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Yellowstone National Park is home to rivers, waterfalls, and hot springs, but Old Faithful is easily its most iconic landmark. Every 45 to 125 minutes, visitors gather around the geyser to watch it shoot streams of water reaching up to 100 feet in the air. The punctual show is one of nature’s greatest spectacles, but new research from scientists at the University of Utah suggests that what’s going on at the geyser’s surface is just the tip of the iceberg.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, features a map of the geological plumbing system beneath Old Faithful. Geologists have long known that the eruptions are caused by water heated by volcanic rocks beneath the ground reaching the boiling point and bubbling upwards through cracks in the earth. But the place where this water simmers between appearances has remained mysterious to scientists until now.

Using 133 seismometers scattered around Old Faithful and the surrounding area, the researchers were able to record the tiny tremors caused by pressure build-up in the hydrothermal reservoir. Two weeks of gathering data helped them determine just how large the well is. The team found that the web of cracks and fissures beneath Old Faithful is roughly 650 feet in diameter and capable of holding more than 79 million gallons of water. When the geyser erupts, it releases just 8000 gallons. You can get an idea of how the reservoir fits into the surrounding geology from the diagram below.

Geological map of geyser.
Sin-Mei Wu, University of Utah

After making the surprising discovery, the study authors plan to return to the area when park roads close for the winter to conduct further research. Next time, they hope to get even more detailed images of the volatile geology beneath this popular part of Yellowstone.

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Animals
Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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YouTube

At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.

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