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Holiday 36

STRANGE BUT TRUE- Itchy kissy: Bad breath worse than smelly

Published July 7, 2005 in issue 0427 of the Hook



Q. Of all the many things you might be allergic to, what just could be the nuttiest of them all? --Amedo Obici

A. Your lover's sweet but potentially dangerous kisses, says Science News magazine. The offending ingredient here is not lips or saliva, but some sort of food eaten by the other person, often peanuts, says Suzanne S. Teuber of the University of California-Davis School of Medicine.

In a number of cases studied, the kissees had developed hives where they were kissed-- and even other symptoms (although rarely)-- even though some of the kissers had eaten the nuts hours earlier, and occasionally even despite a teeth brushing in the interim. Symptoms tended to commence within a minute, such as localized itching and swelling.

One serious reaction was in a peanut-allergic boy; another sent a young woman to an emergency room with anaphylaxis after kissing her shrimp-eating boyfriend. Some two to four percent of the U.S. population have food allergies-- about one percent to peanuts or tree nuts such as walnuts, cashews and almonds, two percent to seafoods.

In one UC-Davis survey, six percent of the allergic participants reported reactions from kissing. Similar numbers came out of a European survey. Scott Sicherer of New York's Mt. Sinai School of Medicine reported that a peck on the cheek is unlikely to cause a severe problem, but that longer, more passionate kisses with much saliva exchanged just might.

For people with severe food allergies, advised Sicherer, always carry self-injectable epinephrine. "It will buy time to get to a hospital emergency room," he says.

Q. Very bad news: Skytrackers say we have one week before an asteroid hits Earth. Is there any place you might go to help dodge what's coming? --H. Penny

A. Be thankful if you've got a gas-frugal car, then fill up and head north (depending on location) into Canada, says Stan Odenwald in Back to the Astronomy Café.

The reasoning is that asteroid orbits make hits more likely within about 25 degrees latitude of the equator, though they're possible anywhere, says Sonoma State University astronomer Philip Plait. Meteorites are found even in the Antarctic, so going North could backfire.

Getting to higher ground is probably a good bet, says Plait. That way you avoid floods if there's a tsunami from an ocean impact. But a mountain near the San Andreas fault might be a bad choice.

How about getting into an airplane? Maybe, unless the impact is really close-- an airborne shockwave could slap a plane right out of the sky! Of course, these are only educated guesses, and it might be better just to stay at home near social services.

For asteroids less than a mile across, only local regions will take a bad hit. For five miles across, best to make sure all your affairs are in order, says Plait. The five-mile dino-doomer released energy billions of times more than the world's total nuclear arsenal. Rocks blown up through the atmosphere and falling back to Earth would cause widespread fires. Not to mention earthquakes, tsunamis....

"Astronomers are diligently locating such potential impactors, and with some decent funding, might even explore ways of diverting them," says Plait.

Q. What in snake venom makes it so deadly? Could the venom ever be beneficial to humans?

A. Toxic enzymes (proteins) are the killer, with many snakes having 20 or more in varying amounts, says biologist William Hayes of Loma Linda University. Venom composition differs from species to species, with close relatives having similar toxins.

However, venoms are dynamic and can change even within an individual snake's lifetime. Juvenile rattlesnakes, for example, typically produce a more toxic venom that changes over time to become a more digestive venom as they need to kill bulkier prey and digest them. In general, haemotoxic venoms kill by inducing circulatory or toxic shock, neurotoxic venoms paralyze muscles, including those for breathing, adds physiologist Scott Turner of the State University of New York.

A hot area of venom research is medical: Some neurotoxins work as muscle relaxants, others help with diseases like Parkinson's. Haemotoxins may aid stroke or heart attack victims or shrink cancerous tumors. Ironically, some day, a deadly snake might save your life.

Q. One member of the church choir had taken a nap and overslept, another ran into car trouble, a third was finishing up some homework. It turns out everyone had areas on and everyone was late-- all 15 members of the Beatrice, Nebraska choir, from 10 different households. So what was so marvelous about all this coincidental tardiness? --B. Graham

A. What are the chances that 10 different households will all experience independent (not a snowstorm etc.) delays and all be late? If you estimate that the average choir member is late 10 percent of the time, poses Bart K. Holland in What Are the Chances?, then the chance of 10 independent latenesses was 0.1 to the 10th power, or 1 in 10billion!

Even if the chance of a delaying event was 20 percent per household, the probability for all 10 was 1 in 10 million. Some church members wondered if divine providence was at work, for on this night in 1950 a freak explosion destroyed the church a few minutes after the choir practice was scheduled to start.

"Was this a miracle?" asks Holland. Certainly, the probability here was vanishingly small, he says, but still you can't rule out amazing coincidence.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich .

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