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Why Is Pee Yellow?

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Before you could speak, you could pee. Before you learned to write your own name, you could pee. (And if you grew up in a particularly snowy part of the world, you may have combined these skills.) Urination is a taboo subject, a daily miracle, an essential bodily function, and a complete mystery to most people who do it. 

Let’s part the underpants-shaped veil surrounding urination information. Let’s learn about peeing.

What Is Peeing, and How Does It Work?

Peeing is one of the body’s astonishing waste-removal systems. Along with pooping and sweating, urination takes the leftovers from cellular processes like metabolism and respiration and carries them out to the anatomical curb. If for some reason any of these processes failed, the accumulated waste would do as garbage does, and make you very sick. 

Urination—also known as uresis, micturition, voiding, and going to see a man about a dog—is actually the finale of an epic physiological saga. Our story begins, as so many do, in the heart. Blood is pumped through renal arteries into the kidneys for filtration. After pulling out all the salts, potassium, and other chemicals the body doesn’t need, the kidneys send purified blood back into the heart. Everything that remains is pee. The newly mixed urine flows into long, skinny tubes called ureters, then into the bladder. As the bladder nears capacity, your brain gets a message that it’s time to go. As soon as you give the signal, your pee rushes from your bladder to your urethra to your genitals, and from there to the blinding light of the world outside your body.

TL; DR/VERDICT/SHORT ANSWER: Peeing is awesome and necessary. Also, kidneys.

Why Is My Pee Always Yellow? (And What If It Isn’t?)

Urine’s characteristic sunny hue comes primarily from a substance called urobilin. When your body is properly hydrated, the urobilin is diluted with plenty of water, and your pee is a nice, normal buttercup color. Amber or ale-colored urine is a reliable sign of dehydration, and clear pee is a signal that it’s time to put down the Nalgene. No matter what supermodels say, remember: It is possible to drink too much water.

And what if your urine isn’t yellow at all, but red, or blue, or even black? Well! Then you’ve got a riddle to solve. 

Have you eaten a lot of borscht recently? You may be suffering from beeturia, which is the technical term for peeing red or pink after eating a lot of beets. I am not making this up. Ingesting enormous quantities of strawberries or rhubarb can produce the same effect.

Are you on a new medication? The pharmaceutical additive methylene blue can turn your urine a startling blue or green. Eating too much asparagus or food coloring (I’m looking at you, festive green beer) can also cause verdant pee. Orange urine may be medication- or vitamin-related, or you may have forgotten that carrot feast last night. There’s a fruit or vegetable to blame for nearly every color of the urine rainbow.

NOTE: If your pee is dark brown, reddish (and not in a charming, beet-y way), or black, get yourself to a doctor. Urine color has been a diagnostic tool since Greco-Roman times. Physicians and self-appointed “piss prophets” divined a visitor’s health, illness, or destiny by looking at, sniffing, and even tasting his or her urine. Your doctor will probably not take it that far. 

TL; DR/VERDICT/SHORT ANSWER: A) urobilin! B) Lay off the beets! C) If your diet is beet-free, see a doctor.

Is It True That You Can Drink Your Urine?

The piss prophets probably gave this answer away, but yes, technically, you can, since urine is generally bacteria-free and nontoxic. The real question is “Why would you?” 

Some people have their reasons. (You’d have to, right?) In a life-or-death situation, with no potable water, imbibing your own wee may keep you alive longer, but don’t make it a habit. Remember the garbage metaphor? Because urine is a waste product, each cycle through your body adds a new batch of toxins, so after a while, drinking the stuff would do you more harm than good.

Other pee drinkers believe their habit lengthens their lifespan. Practitioners of “urotherapy” claim that consuming your own urine can cure acne, weight problems, and even cancer. The American Cancer Society does not agree.

TL; DR/VERDICT/SHORT ANSWER: Sure, you can. You can also hit yourself with a hammer or chew gum that’s lost its flavor. You are the captain of your own destiny. Choose wisely.

Should I Pee On This Jellyfish Sting? What About This Patch of Athlete’s Foot?

Only if you want to make it worse and/or spend the day smelling like pee for no reason. Urine may be sterile, but it does not have magical healing properties. It’s as effective as clean water (which is fairly ineffective) for treating athlete’s foot, and can fire up the jellyfish stingers that burned your skin in the first place.

TL; DR/VERDICT/SHORT ANSWER: No, and no. 

Why Do We Call It Pee?

Urine is the oldest word for our personal waters in the English language, originating from the Old Norse ur, meaning “drizzling rain.” Piss, that delightful onomatopoetic term, came next. “Piss,” with all its coarseness and icky connotations, was euphemistically abbreviated to the letter “pee” by squeamish parents in the late 18th century.

TL; DR/VERDICT/SHORT ANSWER: Because we’re afraid of death, decay, and talking about our bodies.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Airplane Bathrooms
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Even if you only fly first class, there’s no getting around the fact that moving your bowels at 36,000 feet is a bit of an ordeal. Airplane lavatories are cramped, turbulence can unseat you, and the line of people waiting just outside the flimsy door can make it difficult to relax.

Despite these drawbacks, airplane lavatories used to be much, much worse. Take a look at 10 facts we’ve uncovered about the past, present, and future of turds on the tarmac.

1. PASSENGERS USED TO CRAP IN BOXES.

 An open cardboard box sits empty
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No matter how boorish your seatmate might be or how loud the wail of the child behind you, be thankful you weren’t one of the earliest pilots or passengers during the aviation explosion of the 1930s and 1940s. Without tanks or separate bathroom compartments, anyone in flight would have make do with pooping in buckets or boxes that would sometimes overflow due to turbulence, splattering poop on the interior; some pilots peed into their shoes or through a hole in the cockpit floor. The first removable bowls were seen at the end of the 1930s, with crew members having to come and empty them out after landing. Removable tanks followed in the 1940s. 

2. THE BRITISH POOPED RIGHT INTO THE SKY.

In 1937, a “flying boat” dubbed the Supermarine Stranraer was put into service by Britain’s Royal Air Force. It didn’t take long for the craft to earn a nickname, the “whistling sh-t House,” owing to one curious design choice: The toilet onboard had no tank or reservoir and opened up to the sky below. If the lid remained open, the passing air would prompt the plane to make a whistling noise.

3. CHARLES LINDBERGH PEED ON FRANCE.

A photo of aviator Charles Lindbergh
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Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and met with King George V shortly after touching down. The 33-hour flight led him to ask Lindbergh how he had managed his bodily demands during that time; Lindbergh replied that he had peed into an aluminum container and then dropped it while flying over France.

4. FALLING FROZEN POOP WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE ‘80S.

As aviation become more sophisticated, toilets went from merely trying to contain poop to actively trying to fight germs with Anotec, the brand name for the “blue liquid” found in freestanding bowls. Unfortunately, the tanks housing the liquid and the waste were sometimes prone to leakage in the air, prompting giant biohazards to freeze on the hull of planes and then break away as the aircraft began its descent. The apocalyptic poop balls reportedly smashed cars and roofs before Boeing and other manufacturers adopted the vacuum system still in use today.

5. THERE'S BEEN ONE CASE OF CATASTROPHIC GENITAL INJURY.

A look at the interior of a cramped airplane bathroom
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The current pneumatic vacuum system toilets use pressure to siphon waste from the bowl without using much liquid, which keeps the plane from having to carry the additional weight of waste water in the sky. The noise of the violent suction can be unsettling, but it’s rare you’d actually be in any danger. Rare, but not impossible.

An article in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2006 [PDF] reported one case of misadventure due to an airplane toilet. A 37-year-old woman flushed while still seated and created a seal, trapping her on the commode. After being freed by flight attendants, she was examined by doctors and was found to have a labial laceration that resulted in “substantial” blood loss. She was treated and recovered fully.

6. THERE’S A TRICK TO AVOID STINKING UP THE PLANE.

No one wants to be the person who exits a lavatory having polluted the pressurized cabin with a foul odor. According to an ex-flight attendant named Erika Roth, asking an employee for a bag of coffee grounds and then hanging them in the bathroom can help absorb any odors produced by your activities.

7. AIRBUS TOILETS CAN REACH POOP SPEEDS OF 130 MPH.

Dubbed the “Formula 1” of airplane toilets, certain Airbus models circa 2007 could produce unbelievable suctioning power. In a demonstration for a journalist (above), their A380 model could move sewage at speeds of 130 miles per hour. The speeds are necessary when bathroom waste needs to travel the length of the passenger cabin to the sewage tanks in the back.

8. THEY’RE GETTING SMALLER.

Already short on space, airplane lavatories might become even more cramped in the future. A 2017 report by Condé Nast Traveler indicated that as older planes are taken out of service, newer-model passenger planes are coming in with modified bathrooms that are up to two inches smaller in width and depth. Industry observers believe the shrinking bathrooms could pose problems for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those who need to accompany their child into the bathroom.

9. BOEING MIGHT HAVE PERFECTED THE AIRPLANE POOP EXPERIENCE.

A glimpse at Boeing's new UV-equipped sanitized bathroom
Boeing

In 2016, the aeronautics company announced a possible solution to the germ-infested poop closets found on planes. Their self-cleaning lavatory uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9 percent of all surface bacteria. The light would be activated between occupancies to sanitize the space for travelers. Boeing also envisions this lavatory of the future to be touchless, with a self-activating seat and sink.

10. THERE’S A REASON THEY STILL HAVE ASHTRAYS.

Ever wonder why airplane bathrooms have ashtrays built into the wall or door even though smoking is banned on virtually all flights? Because federal regulations still require them. The thinking is that someone sneaking a smoke will still need a place to put it out, and the risk of fire is reduced if they have a proper receptacle.

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China Is Using Technology to Thwart Toilet Paper Thieves
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Tourism officials in Beijing face an unusual privy predicament: As The New York Times reports, thieves are swiping sheets of toilet paper from tourist site bathrooms, forcing administrators to install toilet paper dispensers with facial recognition software.

Due to a boom in domestic travel, the AP reports that tourism authorities have launched a $3.6 billion campaign to overhaul the capital city’s public toilets—particularly the infamously crude tourist bathrooms at popular attractions. Around 34,000 new public bathrooms are slated for construction; many of them will be built in the Western-style sit-down design, instead of the ubiquitous squat design. In addition, around 23,000 bathrooms will undergo renovations.

Some facilities are also equipped with the technologically advanced toilet paper dispensers, which cost around $720 each. When visitors enter these bathrooms, they are required to stare at a wall-mounted computer for three seconds. A machine provides them with a single, two-foot sheet of paper; after that, the visitor must wait nearly 10 minutes for a second one.

Toilet paper is a rarity in China, where most public restrooms either don’t have paper, or provide visitors with a single roll to share among themselves. However, it’s a required amenity for tourist sites if they are to receive top ratings from the country’s National Tourism Authority. Unfortunately, it can also make them a magnet for thieves.

For the past decade, Beijing’s popular Temple of Heaven Park has stocked its bathrooms with toilet paper, and locals wanting to replenish their own personal supply often stole it. Now, the park is testing out the face-recognizing toilet paper dispensers. Administrators say they will install the special dispensers in all of the park’s public bathrooms if the machines do, indeed, put an end to their toilet troubles.

[h/t The New York Times]

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