Weird things can happen to humans when you put them in places they aren’t supposed to be, and flying in a plane is no exception. Frequent fliers complain of everything from popping ears to dry skin, but an ailment they may be less willing to admit to is an increased rate of farting. Luckily, there’s already a filter for that.
Activated charcoal is pretty miraculous for what looks like something you’d toss into an old steam locomotive. In medicine, activated charcoal is used in emergency settings as it can mitigate damage from certain kinds of poisoning by absorbing it before the body has a chance to. As it happens, it’s pretty good at absorbing farts, too.
During a flight, air is pumped into the cabin to pressurize it so that it’s safer and more comfortable for the passengers and crew, because the external pressure is much less than we’re used to down on the ground. Air is less dense when you’re high up. According to One Monroe Aerospace, what we experience on the ground is around 6.4 kilograms (14 pounds) per square inch (PSI), whereas at cruising altitude you’re looking at more like 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds) PSI.
Keeping that pressurized cabin comfy involves letting air in and out at the right times, meaning a lot of it is being constantly recycled – sometimes through a filter. According to Stuff, High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters also use charcoal to rid the air of airborne particles over 0.3 microns in size – which can be beneficial both for your health as well as the smell of the cabin.
It’s comical but also crucial, because being in a plane cruising at around 10,668 meters (35,000 feet) above the ground has a tendency to make people fart more often. If you’ve ever boarded with a packet of crisps and noticed the way it bulges out as you ascend, you can imagine what’s happening to the gases trapped within your stretchy intestines.
Here, science came up with a novel solution you can sit on in the event of a 7.4 on the rectum scale.
“Flatus is natural and an invariable consequence of digestion, however at times it creates problems of social character due to sound and odour,” reads a paper titled Flatulence On Airplanes: Just Let It Go. “This problem may be more significant on commercial airplanes where many people are seated in limited space and where changes in volume of intestinal gases, due to altered cabin pressure, increase the amount of potential flatus.”
“Holding back flatus on an airplane may cause significant discomfort and physical symptoms, whereas releasing flatus potentially presents social complications. To avoid this problem we humbly propose that active charcoal should be embedded in the seat cushion, since this material is able to neutralise the odour.”
Over to you, textile artists, and don’t forget the funky patterns you find on buses and trains (which also have a grim origins story).