What's in Your Car?

With the holiday driving season upon us, many Americans will be taking to the road for long trips this weekend. I'll be heading up to Seattle (only about a three-hour drive), but I'm already planning everything: I'll be carrying core beverages, backup beverages, a selection of audiobooks, a pile of outdated maps, and of course a trunk full of weird junk that might be used in case of emergency (an unopened AAA "Emergency Kit," a squeegee on a stick, oil, a lot of bungee cables, an expired Washington license plate that came with the car, and for some reason about a thousand paper napkins). I think I'm prepared. But what about you?

Blogger Mary Wheeler recently wrote up a list of what's in her car. I reprint it here in its entirety (emphasis added):

• ancient iPod Nano -- not worth stealing (I hope)
• persimmon (from my mom's tree, for the fresh scent, 'natch)
• back scratcher -- especially for those long drives (I use it a LOT!)
Whoopie cushion -- you know, for hitchhikers
• iPhone adapter (in case the Nano runs out of batteries)
• inspirational Tarot card
• rubber beetle
• ecdysiast button -- this just appeared in my car one day -- I think it might have been left there by a hitchhiker.

Not pictured: napkins, flashlight, screwdriver, electrical tape, hose clamp, rubber belt of some kind (like I'd know what to do with it if I needed it), pens, maps, rags, extra oil, tire gauge, dirt. What I don't have, but should: flares, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, money.

In case of hitchhikers, all I have is additional audiobooks.

So what about you? What's in your car? Share in the comments. Also, if you realize you really need a whoopee cushion, now would be the time to stock up.

(See also: The Items We Carry and On My Desk.)

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What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?
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For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Peanuts Are Making Their Final Departure From Southwest Airlines
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Southwest Airlines—the commercial flying juggernaut that made peanuts an airplane staple 47 years ago—is now doing away with them for good. Starting August 1, the airline will no longer offer peanuts on any of its flights.

According to the company, it’s all about concern for people with allergies, ABC News reports. “Our ultimate goal is to create an environment where all customers—including those with peanut-related allergies—feel safe and welcome on every Southwest flight,” the airline said in a statement.

Southwest Airlines started offering free peanuts on all its flights in 1971. The practice, which later became synonymous with airplane travel, originally began as a cheeky marketing ploy. In an effort to lower prices, the airline stopped serving in-flight meals and told customers they could fly for peanuts, both literally and figuratively.

But the ubiquity of peanuts on airplanes soon became a concern for individuals with severe food allergies. Proponents of airplane peanut bans say severely allergic individuals can experience reactions from airborne peanut dust alone, but organizations like the American Peanut Council are predictably more skeptical. There’s not enough evidence that someone can experience severe allergic reactions from inhaling peanut dust, they say, so the claim may be a myth.

Fact is, there’s not a whole lot of concrete information on either side. In a 2008 article published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, researchers surveyed 471 people with a medical history of food allergies. Of that number, 41 said they’d experienced allergic reactions to food on commercial airline flights (mostly to peanuts), and 26 said those reactions had come from inhaled peanut dust. An unspecified number said their reactions had been life-threatening. But the study’s authors admitted within the article their methods had limitations—researchers recruited participants through newspaper advertisements, for one, and the data were all self-reported.

The lack of decisive evidence that airplane peanuts cause severe allergic reactions is one reason why airlines have historically been reluctant to make changes. In 2010, the Department of Transportation contemplated banning peanuts on planes, but it abandoned the idea after being reminded of a 2000 law that prohibits the department from enforcing any peanut bans without the support of a conclusive, peer-reviewed study showing severe reactions resulting from "contact with very small airborne peanut particles of the kind that passengers might encounter in an aircraft."

Further complicating the issue is the fact that severe allergies are considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA doesn’t regulate air travel discrimination, though, which is why the Air Carrier Access Act, or ACAA, was passed in 1986. The ACAA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Severe allergies fall under that (not being able to breathe or eat is a pretty significant impairment), but the ACAA doesn’t specify how airlines should treat customers with food allergies.

Most airlines have specific measures they’ll take in order to accommodate customers with peanut allergies, but such procedures are uneven across airlines, and can sometimes be uneven across flights of the same airline. JetBlue, for example, serves only peanut-free snacks and will make announcements about food allergies. Air Canada recently phased out nuts from all its in-flight food options, and it also offers to create a buffer zone between individuals with allergies and any allergens. Prior to banning peanuts, Southwest allowed people with allergies to pre-board in order to wipe down their seats, but it didn’t make any announcements discouraging passengers from eating peanuts.

Given the airline’s story, peanuts “forever will be part of Southwest's history and DNA,” the company said in a statement. But Southwest isn’t going to stop offering free food to customers who shell out the money for a flight. Passengers in the future can instead look forward to in-flight snacks of pretzels, cookies, veggie chips, and corn chips, CNN reports.

[h/t ABC News]

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