An Iraqi man with a magnet concealed in his rectum set off an alarm at Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday morning. Security officials say he had also hidden a round, polished stone in the same place. In an "Explainer" column printed last year and reproduced below, Daniel Engber wondered how much stuff you can cram into one rear end.
Cellular telephones were discovered inside the anal cavities of four prison inmates in El Salvador on Tuesday. The director of the prison says the convicts had attempted to conceal four plastic-wrapped cell phones, nine cell-phone chips, and one cell-phone charger. Hang on—how much stuff can one person fit up there?
Quite a bit. "Body-packing" drug runners usually carry several pounds of narcotics in their digestive tracts. These are split up into dozens of tubular packets, each one about the size of an unshelled peanut. Most body-packers swallow the packets along with drugs that induce constipation, but some place the drugs directly into the anal canal.
Objects that can't be divided into small packages pose a bigger problem. In general, it takes a fair bit of training to conceal something that's more than a couple of inches in diameter. As a general rule, the medical literature on "retained colorectal foreign bodies" considers anything bigger a "large object." (Most modern cell phones wouldn't meet that definition. The Explainer's Motorola RAZR, for example, is only 2 inches wide and 3.75 inches long.)
Doctors find retained foreign bodies in both smugglers and recreational body-packers. One experienced pleasure-seeker told an online body modification magazine that it took two years of training before he could accommodate a wine bottle—which is about three inches wide. (Now he can handle 4-inch balls.)
Body-packing can be a dangerous activity. In extreme cases, internal lacerations can lead to sepsis or fatal blood loss. Drug mules can suffer from "cocaine-packer syndrome," which occurs when packages break open and release their contents. (A ruptured packet of cocaine or heroin can be life-threatening; leaking marijuana or hashish is more likely to make you a bit loopy.) A retained foreign body can also cause severe abdominal pain.
Removal of the foreign body can sometimes be difficult. Body-packers use laxatives or enemas to extract their cargo; other objects can sometimes be squeezed out or removed by hand. Large objects can become stuck, especially if they create a vacuum seal against the walls of the colon. Back in 1934, a doctor named H.G. Pretty described an attempt to remove a recalcitrant ink bottle. "The idea was then conceived," he wrote, "that the only way to extract it was to overcome the vacuum." Today, doctors sometimes inject air into the colon using a catheter to negate the suction effect. In 2004, a British medical team discovered that they could use a strong electromagnet to coax out a large metal object—in that case, a 3-inch wide, 1.5-pound petanque boule.
Bonus Explainer: Where would a prisoner plug in his smuggled cell phone charger? Right in the wall of his cell. Many American prisoners are provided with electrical outlets so that they can plug in small televisions, hot plates, or typewriters. In the California penal system, you're allowed as much electricity as you want, but cell phones are forbidden.
Bonus Bonus Explainer: Are prison guards and customs officials allowed to check your anal cavity? Yes. The courts have held that anal cavity searches do not necessarily violate the Fourth Amendment. Even so, they're only ordered in extreme cases. Suspected body-packers may be subject to X-ray checks—air pockets in drug packages can be easy to spot on film—or they may be kept under observation until they've had several clean bowel movements.
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Explainer thanks Brian Parriott of the California Department of Corrections.