Ken Jennings


November 28, 2012

To review: the crack team at “Because I Said So!” labs has been working on the “running with scissors” hysteria.

And investigating “sitting too close to the TV.”

In our latest experiment, we look into the much-misreported menace of “swallowing your gum.”

Many thanks to the fine folks at Seattle’s Filmateria Studios for putting these videos together under a very tight deadline. If you like their work, please check out their Team Marco Polo work for kids and former kids alike.

Here’s the scoop from my upcoming book Because I Said So! about what really happens when kids swallow gum:

“Swallowed gum sits in your stomach undigested for seven years!”

Could this really be true? If I swallow a piece of gum today, will it really emerge, Rip Van Winkle-like, into some futuristic Japanese-style toilet in the year 2020? Is there a possibility that tonight I will poop the piece of gum I accidentally swallowed during Big Momma’s House 2? When pondering these questions with my friend Raj, he remembered that as a child, he wondered what would happen if he swallowed two pieces of gum—would they be trapped for seven years, or fourteen? In other words, would they serve their sentences consecutively or concurrently?

I hate to pop your bubble, but the answer is neither. Gum routinely gets furloughed within 24 hours, like a diplomat or a Kennedy. It’s true that about a quarter of chewing gum is the gum base itself, a completely food-free substance made up of latexes, resins, waxes, and emulsifiers. Your gastrointestinal tract could work on that for years and have no luck digesting it. But that’s not what happens.

“That would mean that every single person who ever swallowed gum within the last seven years would have evidence of the gum in the digestive tract,” Dr. David Milov told Scientific American. “On occasion we’ll see a piece of swallowed gum” in a colonoscopy, “but usually it’s not something that’s any more than a week old.” Your intestine eliminates gum the same way it eliminates half-chewed corn kernels and anything else that’s too tough to digest: out the rectum within a day or two.

However, Dr. Milov also led the team that published the landmark study “Chewing Gum Bezoars of the Intestinal Tract” in a 1998 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics. A “bezoar” is a clump of undigested stuff that gets trapped in the stomach or intestine. (The wonderful name comes from a Persian word for “antidote,” since animal bezoars, sort of like those owl pellets you had to dissect in eighth grade, were anciently thought to have remarkable health properties.) Most bezoars are boluses of food or pills; sometimes, in rare cases of “Rapunzel syndrome,” they’re made of swallowed hair. And sometimes, very rarely, they’re made of chewing gum.

Dr. Milov’s team found three cases of young children whose “means of discarding their gum (swallowing) was well known to the families and was a source of levity.” Well, nobody was laughing when the gum-swallowing led to chronic constipation and, finally, surgery when laxatives proved powerless. If you want your kids to quit swallowing their gum, here’s the money quote:

This clean-out regimen produced no results after 4 days. On the 5th day, the child was brought in for manual disimpaction under conscious sedation and rectal suction biopsy. On removal of the leading edge of the fecoma, a “taffy-like” trail of fecal material remained in the rectum. This mass was eventually manually withdrawn and was primarily made up of chewing gum.

Wow. I hope these parents kept the “rectal suction biopsy” video on hand to show future prom dates. But keep in mind: this was a kid who swallowed five to seven pieces of gum per day. Other cases only got serious when stuff like coins got swallowed and trapped in the Wrigley’s-brand butt-plug. So don’t worry—the occasional accidentally swallowed piece of gum isn’t going to do any harm. You’d have to be the Hunter S. Thompson of gum-swallowing to get into medical trouble.

But prepare to be embarrassed if you’re caught! Dr. Milov writes that “the rainbow of fused, multicolored gum fragments in the removed fecoma is easily recognized by physician and family as old gum.” Maybe I’m just weird, but that actually sounds sort of beautiful—other than the part where it, you know, gets pulled out of someone’s butt.



Because I Said So! hits shelves next Tuesday, December 4. The perfect holiday gift idea for parents, kids, and (again) former kids, if you know any. Here’s how to order.

Posted by Ken at 9:09 am