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People Are Infecting Themselves With Parasitic Worms as a Medical Treatment

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Are intestinal worms the next probiotic? Some scientists think so. A growing body of research suggests that infection with helminths, or parasitic worms, may help balance the immune system and reduce inflammation. Some studies suggest that the use of helminths—including hookworms and whipworms—can ease the symptoms of a growing number of medical conditions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disagrees. The agency has classified helminthic therapy as an Investigational New Drug (IND). The only people who can dispense INDs are researchers conducting experiments, and even they need special permission. But treatment with the parasites is legal in Mexico, and would-be hosts are crossing the border to get it.

There's clear desperation at work here: A person who is willing to intentionally infect him- or herself with intestinal worms—which affect 2 billion people worldwide and can cause a range of serious illnesses—likely believes they've already exhausted every other option.

So why would anybody do this? 

Autoimmune and inflammatory diseases are on the rise in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. With conditions like allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, a person’s body actually attacks itself. And for many of these people, existing treatment options are just not working. 

Scientists believe that the increase in autoimmune diseases is related to the increase in cleanliness and sterile environments. In order to learn to protect us from all the little nasties out there, the bacteria in our bodies have to meet those nasties. But in a world with antimicrobial hand soap in every public restroom, our bacteria aren’t meeting much of anything. In the absence of challenges, our bacterial ecosystems can get a little lopsided, with too much of certain types of organisms. And, researchers say, that imbalance can send our immune systems into a tailspin. In short, we’re too clean for our own good. 

This hygiene hypothesis, as it’s known, is also the idea behind probiotics. If we supplement our “good” bacteria, the theory goes, we may keep things in check. And some researchers believe the same could be true for helminths. Infection with the parasites activates the immune system in a way that might provide sick people with some relief.

There are a number of ways to take in the parasites. Visitors to helminth therapy clinics may be offered a shot of clear, helminth-infested liquid to drink; the worms might also be applied to their skin. When it comes to hookworms, swallowing the worms sends them quickly to the gut, where they dig in to the stomach lining and begin feeding. Worms that enter the body through the skin first have to enter the bloodstream, wind their way into the heart, and then the lungs. Because the worms irritate lung tissue, some people cough them up at this point, then swallow them again. One way or another, the worms then migrate into the small intestine, where they feed.  

Helminth therapy recipients have reported decreases in allergies, inflammation, and pain, but it's hardly instantaneous. “The use of the intestinal worms is typically not a short term solution,” notes the website of a clinic called Worm Therapy. Some people may begin to feel the effects within a few weeks. For others, it may take months or even years. And for some people, it will never work at all.

Science seems fairly split on this one. There are plenty of studies suggesting that helminth therapy can be safe and effective, but most conclude that we just don’t have enough information yet to be sure. 

Gastroenterologist Joel Weinstock has performed a number of helminth experiments on patients with Crohn’s disease. “Nobody got hurt, nobody’s eyes fell out,” Weinstock told Science Notes in 2014. “But it’s still too early to say, ‘Well golly gee, this is going to be better than apple pie.’”

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There's a Train Full of New York City Poop Stranded in Alabama—Here's Why
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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7 Fast Facts About Animal Farting
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Anyone who’s had a pet can testify that dogs and cats occasionally get gassy, letting rip noxious farts and then innocently looking up as if to say “Who, me?” You may not have considered the full breadth of animal life passing gas in the world, though—and not just mammals. In a new book, ecologist Nick Caruso and zoologist Dani Rabaiotti detail the farting habits (or lack thereof) of 80 different animals. Here are seven weird animal farting facts we learned from Does It Fart?.

1. FOR ONE FISH, FARTING IS AN EMERGENCY.

A black-and-white illustration of a fish floating upside down on the surface of the water
Ethan Kocak

The diet of the Bolson pupfish, a freshwater fish found in northern Mexico, can lead to dangerous levels of gas. The pupfish feeds on algae, and it can inadvertently eat the gas bubbles that algae produces in warm temperatures. The air inflates the fish’s intestines and distends its belly, messing with its equilibrium and making it difficult to swim. Even if it tries to bury itself in sediment at the bottom of a pool, as Bolson pupfish are wont to do, the air causes the fish to rise to the surface, where it’s at risk of being eaten by a bird. If the fish doesn’t fart, it will likely die, either from predation or because its intestines rupture under the pressure of the trapped gas.

2. MANATEES USE FARTS AS A SWIMMING TECHNIQUE.

The Bolson pupfish isn't the only animal that needs healthy farts to maneuver underwater. Buoyancy is vital for swimming manatees, and they rely on digestive gas to keep them afloat. The West Indian manatee has pouches in its intestines where it can store farty gasses. When they have a lot of gas stored up, they’re naturally more buoyant, floating to the surface of the water. When they fart out that gas, they sink. Unfortunately, that means that a manatee’s ability to fart is vital to its well-being. When a manatee is constipated and can’t pass gas properly, it can lose the ability to swim properly and end up floating around with its tail above its head.

3. TERMITE FARTS ARE A SIGNIFICANT SOURCE OF GLOBAL EMISSIONS.

A black-and-white illustration of a termite farting
Ethan Kocak

They’re not as bad as cars or cows, but termites fart a lot, and because they are so numerous, that results in a lot of methane. Each termite only lets rip about half a microgram of methane gas a day, but every termite colony is made up of millions of individuals, and termites live all over the world. All told, the insects produce somewhere between 5 and 19 percent of global methane emissions per year.

4. FERRETS ARE SURPRISED BY THEIR OWN FARTS.

Ferrets are quite the fart machines. They not only let ‘em rip while pooping—which they do every few hours on a normal day—but they get particularly gassy when they’re stressed. The pungent smells are often news to their creators, though. According to the book, “owners often report a confused look on their pet’s face in the direction of their backside after they audibly pass gas.” And you don't want your ferret to get really scared: Their fear response involves screaming, puffing up, and simultaneous farting and pooping.

5. A BEADED LACEWING’S FARTS CAN BE DEADLY.

A black-and-white illustration of a beaded lacewing standing triumphantly over a prone termite
Ethan Kocak

A winged insect known as the beaded lacewing carries a powerful weapon within its butt, what Caruso and Rabaiotti call “one of the very few genuinely fatal farts known to science.” As a hunting strategy, Lomamyia latipennis larvae release a potent fart containing the chemical allomone, paralyzing and killing their termite prey.

6. WHALE FARTS MAKE QUITE THE SPLASH.

A black-and-white illustration of a whale farting above water while a woman on a boat speeds behind it
Ethan Kocak

As befits their size, whales produce some of biggest farts on the planet. A blue whale’s digestive system can hold up to a ton of food in its multiple stomach chambers, and there are plenty of bacteria in that system waiting to break that food down. This, of course, leads to farts. While not many whale farts have been caught on camera, scientists have witnessed them—and report them to be “incredibly pungent,” as Rabaiotti and Caruso tell it.

7. NOT ALL ANIMALS FART.

Octopuses don’t fart, nor do other sea creatures like soft-shell clams or sea anemones. Birds don’t, either. Meanwhile, sloths may be the only mammal that doesn’t fart, according to the book (although the case for bat farts is pretty tenuous). Having a belly full of trapped gas is dangerous for a sloth. If things are working normally, the methane produced by their gut bacteria is absorbed into their bloodstream and eventually breathed out.

The woodlouse has an odd way of getting rid of gas, too, though it’s technically not flatulence. Instead of peeing, woodlice excrete ammonia through their exoskeleton, with bursts of these full-body “farts” lasting up to an hour at a time.

The cover of 'Does It Fart?'
Hachette Books

Does It Fart? is available for $15 from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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