Does Michael Phelps' lung capacity allow him to take monster bong hits?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 3 2009 6:41 PM

Olympic-Size Bong Hits

Michael Phelps has extraordinary lung capacity. Does that mean he can get extraordinarily stoned?

Also in Slate, Brian Palmer explains how a drug makes it onto the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances

Michael Phelps. Click image to expand.
Michael Phelps

The British tabloid News of the World published a photo Sunday of Michael Phelps taking a bong hit at a college party. The International Olympic Committee accepted the swimmer's apology for his behavior, and so far Phelps'sponsors are making light of the incident. Meanwhile, on blogs and chat forums, fans are wondering whether Phelps' abnormally large lung capacity means he can take monster bong rips. Can he?

He can. Total lung capacity refers to the volume of air contained in the lungs at the point of "maximal" inspiration—i.e., the biggest breath you can take. It's measured in liters. The greater a smoker's total lung capacity, the more he can inhale from a given joint, bowl, or bong. According to some estimates, Phelps' lung capacity is twice that of the average human, or 12 liters rather than six. So if he puts his mind to it, he can take a hit that's twice as big as that of the next partygoer.

Each time a smoker takes a puff of marijuana, THC is delivered to the circulatory system via the capillaries in the lungs. The rapidity with which a smoker gets high depends, in part, on how quickly he absorbs the THC, which depends, in turn, on the interval between puffs, hold time, and, yes, lung capacity. But this doesn't mean that Phelps gets twice as high, twice as fast as non-Olympians. Larger people need more cannabis than others to feel its effect. (Phelps is 6-foot-4 and weighs about 195 pounds.) How quickly a smoker gets high, and how high he gets, also depends on whether he's a regular user. Veteran tokers need to smoke more than novices to experience the drug's physiological and behavioral effects.

Advertisement

The long-term consequences of marijuana use are still hotly debated. But there's some evidence that users suffer from decreased lung capacity and may develop chronic bronchitis and airflow obstruction. Continued use would likely have an adverse effect both on lap times and bong-hit size.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School. Explainer also thanks reader Greg Wymer for asking the question.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

  Business
Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.