Category Archives: Health

Are preservatives really the reason dead bodies now decay slower than ever? (Part 2)

Not so long ago, German doctors and undertakers have voiced their concerns regarding the decreasing rate of decay of dead bodies over the last 30 years.

An article cites German and Swiss “experts” who supposedly have 3 competing theories as to what causes this:

1.) The pollution of air and water killed most of the bacteria that play a crucial role in decay.

2.) A lot of ageing-slowing cosmetic products have been introduced in the last 30 years.

3.) Our foods and drinks are loaded with preservatives, which delay decay.

What is true of this story is that the decay of dead bodies has slowed across Germany; gravediggers have been so surprised at this that they hired scientists to investigate the matter.

They claimed that a combination of low soil temperatures, high moisture and lack of oxygen harden the outer surface of decaying corpses, preventing further decomposition. These conditions transform the soft tissue of many bodies not into humus, but rather “a gray-white, paste-like, soft mass”.

Apparently, this hardening can be induced by a number of reasons such as clay soil, polyester clothes on the deceased, airtight coffins, and repeated watering of the flowers. However, none of these sources mention preservatives.

This may be because the preservative theory has no scientific basis. As I have previously written:

“We indeed consume large amounts of preservatives, but our metabolic processes break these chemical compounds down and transform them, resulting in a loss of preservative properties.”


Could you really survive a free fall in an elevator by jumping before impact?

An idea that has decent face value and is tested by very few; the two hallmarks of a wide-spread urban legend.

In the U.S., there are an estimated 900,000 elevators, each serving an average of 20,000 people per year. Collectively, U.S. elevators make 18 billion passenger trips per year. Those trips result in about 27 deaths annually, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Even among these, very few are results of free-falling elevators. This is because they are held in place by 4 (or sometimes 8) cables, of which even 1 could hold the elevator. Even if all the cables were cut somehow, an automated emergency brake system would step in and stop the fall.

However, with a free-falling elevator the jumping method wouldn’t help, even if you managed to jump just before impact (which in itself should be extremely difficult, as you don’t see the ground). Jumping would only change our relative positions to the bottom of the elevator and you’d hit the ground at the same speed as the elevator does.

How Stuff Works recommends that if you find yourself in a free-falling elevator, you lie down. By doing this you stabilize yourself and spread the forces that act on your body upon impact (don’t expect this to be pain-free though!).

The MythBusters also tested this myth. Buster (their testing dummy) didn’t take the test too well.

Do people really stay conscious after being decapitated?

This is a question that people with various qualifications have been trying to answer for centuries.

While the question had reportedly occurred to Julian Jean Cesar Legallois (a French psychologist) in 1812, the first confirmed experiment regarding decapitation took place in 1857, when Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard tried to keep the head of a decapitated dog alive with blood transfusion. Apparently, he managed to prolong the animal’s life for a couple of minutes, before it died amid excruciating pain.

A couple decades later Jean-Baptiste Vincent Laborde tried to revive a death row inmate with fresh blood. His experiment ended in failure, although he attributed this to the apparently “outrageous” amount of time that passed between the death of the inmate and Laborde getting access to the body. He requested a second test subject, whom he claimed to have kept alive for a full minute; although the inmate never regained consciousness after the execution.

Around the same time, Paul Loye built a guillotine in his laboratory in order to study decapitated dogs. He concluded that while the mouth of a decapitated animal may move for a couple minutes, victims lose consciousness at the moment of decapitation.

Modern science’s take

According to the New Scientist’s article regarding non-natural causes of death, death after decapitation is brought about extremely fast; victims usually lose consciousness after 2-3 seconds. There are other publications that point out that this time may actually be 15 seconds.

A 2011 study investigating the decapitation of rats found that death usually occurs in 4 to 15 seconds from the point of decapitation. While this falls in line with previous findings, the researchers also identified an unexplained spark in brain activity about a minute after decapitation.

Keeping decapitated heads alive

With all that being said, there have been a number of experiments that managed to substantially prolong the suffering life of decapitated subjects. Soviet scientists have managed to keep decapitated dog heads alive for about 3 hours. Furthermore, the head was even shown to be reactive towards external stimuli.

Does stress really cause ulcers?

Even around the end of the 20th century, medical experts were convinced that stress was the main cause of ulcers, before spicy food, smoking and heavy drinking. Although research findings have since cast a serious doubt on this, public opinion still seems to favour this theory.

Peptic ulcer is a break in the lining of the stomach, the first part of the small intestine or occasionally the lower oesophagus. According to Great Discoveries in Medicine, peptic ulcer had the lifetime prevalence rate of 10% in the 20th century.

Before the 1980’s, even medical experts were convinced that ulcers were mainly caused by stress. Smoking and eating spicy food were thought to be secondary risk factors, suggests 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. This belief was probably based on the observation that whenever we’re stressed, our stomachs contract. However, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s Nobel Prize-winning research illustrated that this illness has strong links to bacteria called H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori).

In 1979 two Australian pathologists, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, noticed that many (about 80%) of their gastric ulcer patients had a mysterious bacteria clinging to the tissues of their biopsy specimens. They theorized that these bacteria (the H. Pylori) had something to do with ulcers, but they were not taken seriously by the medical community.

In order to prove their theory, Barry Marshall designed a dangerous experiment. He drank a brew containing billions of H. Pylori bacteria to show that they are the main cause of ulcers. As he recalled in an interview:

“So what I thought would happen – I thought it would take hold and I would have no symptoms and be perfectly well for a few years and ultimately get an ulcer. So I was surprised when after a week I developed bad breath, and everyone in the family was complaining about me, and then all my laboratory friends put me in my own private lab and I had nobody else in there, it was so bad, and I started having vomiting attacks every morning, which was very, very weird, and I noticed there was no acid in the vomit. So weird things were happening at that point”.

However, Marschall ultimately didn’t get a stomach ulcer, so he couldn’t decisively prove the link between H. Pylori and ulcers. The proof emerged when researchers along the globe reported that their ulcer patients showed improvement after the H. Pylori infection was treated with antibiotics.

With all of this being said, many people (like Marshall himself) don’t get ulcers even after getting H. Pylori infections. This would indicate that there are other factors that lead to the development of ulcers, and stress could be one of them. It seems clear, however, that stress isn’t the main cause of this illness.


Preservatives slow down the decomposition of bodies?

We are shoveling such a large amount of preservaties into our mouths, that after our deaths our bodies decompose much slower in the morgues. I have received this query the other day, let’s see if there’s any truth to it.

„I have heard this story from two of my friends almost at the same time, so when I looked it up on the web, I have found several instances of the story, matching almost word by word. Each of them starts with the following formula: ‘according to a friend of mine who’s a pathologist’ – note that it is never an actual pathologist saying it first hand – ‘we consume so much preservatives that bodies decompose at a much slower pace in the morgues'” – this „word of wisdom” was sent to me by a reader the other day.

And indeed, if you google the topic, you stumble upon the following comments:

„I have read in an article that 50 years ago it took 6 month for a human body to decompose. Nowadays it takes more than 5 years.”

„I have been told too by an old pathologist, that back in the day, they had to put the corpses into the freezers so they don’t start to decompose, but these days, because of the many preservaties one eats, a corpse is fine at room temperature for days.”

On first thought, I considered this story to be another instance of further thinking by the people, but I wanted an expert opinion, so I contacted dr. György Dunai, research fellow of the National Forensic Medical Institute in Budapest.

According to Dunay, their institute performs an autopsy on 2500-2600 bodies – from a wide spectrum of causes and backgrounds – every year, but they have never encountered the above mentioned phenomenon.

He thinks there is no scientific explanation for this: we indeed consume large amounts of preservatives, but our metabolism partly breaks down these chemical compounds, partly they are transformed chemically, losing their preservative effects in the process.

According to the expert: the chemical compounds that form (and even accumulate) during this transformations can have negative effects, but as far as our story is concerned, he is positive, that this is nothing but an urban legend.


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