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Solving that gaseous problem no one wants to talk about

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Brian Conant with one of his carbon-permeated flatulence deodorizers. (Courtesy Brian Conant, Flat-D In)

Brian Conant stood alongside his fellow National Guardsmen during a training session about eight years ago in Hawaii. He was wearing a heavy chemical warfare suit lined with charcoal.

“Any time I expelled gas in the suit, I realized nobody could smell it,” Conant, 48, said recently. “It was amazing.”

But it wasn’t until several months later, when his wife experienced what Conant calls an “episode,” that he thought of the tremendous power of carbon. “Don’t come over here,” Conant recalls his mortified wife saying to him. “I just wish there was something that I could wear that would mask the smell.”

There was, Conant thought, but the chemical warfare suit could be quite cumbersome for daily wear. He quickly went to work on a prototype for a smaller sized pad that people might be able to fasten inside their pants. But the black charcoal lining in his suit caused stains, especially when it got wet.

While searching for an alternate material, he found that the U.K. issued a lasting and washable suit for their soldiers—the charcoal was woven into the fibers of the material, instead of impregnated between two pieces of fabric. With this model, he developed a pad for which he obtained a patent in 2001. He believed the product would find eager buyers among those who had disorders or who were taking flatulence-causing medication.

According to the American College of Gastroenterology, 58 million Americans suffer from one or more medical disorders that cause excessive gas. To treat it, doctors usually recommend a change in diet. Sometimes they recommend medication, like Gas-X or Bean-O, which alters the bacteria that may be causing the foul odor. But with Conant’s invention, the Flatulence Deodorizer, also known as Flat-D, there is an alternative way to limit the embarrassment.

The long, narrow washable pad, lined thinly with charcoal, absorbs chemicals, including hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of the bacteria that causes odorous gas. The pad, at $12.95, curves with the contour of the body, and is one size fits most.

For those who fall outside the “most” category, Conant has developed the “overpad,” partly due to the increasing number of phone calls from people who have just undergone gastric bypass surgery. The surgery causes food to bypass part of the small intestine; therefore, food cannot be broken down easily and excessive flatulence occurs. This pad is designed for these overweight customers, but as they lose weight they may opt for the original design.

The Flat-D business might be more profitable if people did not think it impolite to speak openly about their gas, said marketing director, Frank Morosky, who calls himself the flatulence guru. Women account for 85 percent of the client base because, Morosky suggests, they may be more embarrassed by the smells than by the prospect of purchasing a product to mask a bodily odor. Despite this reticence, Flat-D has sold thousands of pads a year since it set up its Web site almost five years ago. And business is only getting better.

“Can you guess our best month?” Morosky asked. “January, because people have made New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier. And, it turns out, healthy foods like broccoli, beans and whole grains cause gas.”

This past January was the company’s most profitable January so far.

“Can you guess our slowest months? Summertime. Do you know why?” Morosky asked. “Everyone is outside, so they just let their gas go outdoors.”

Although he admitted he could see the lighter side of the issue, his voice grew louder and his words ran together while remembering those he has helped.

One student called him from San Antonio. “When she was sitting in class, she would fill up with gas and hurt, but sometimes she would let some go and she was really embarrassed,” said Morosky. “People were really hating her.”

The woman had him express-mail the products, so she would be at ease as soon as possible.

Not everyone is sold on pads like Flat-D, including Dr. Michael Levitt, a gastroenterology researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. Also skeptical of deodorizing medications and people’s allegiance to diets, he decided to investigate the effectiveness of these pads.

Most intriguing to him, though, was how to test something that seemed to capture something so intangible.

“We wanted to mechanize this to, well, bring it into the Henry Ford era,” Levitt said. “We collected sulfurous gases and then had someone take a whiff of it to see which smelled the worst or which had the highest sulfur concentration.”

His study, conducted in 2005 and published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, measured the effectiveness of three different types of charcoal devices: cushions, pads and pantaloons. The cushions are flat and square, designed to be sat upon when necessary. Levitt’s wife, a seamstress, designed the pantaloons specifically for the study. “You wouldn’t want your boyfriend to see them, let’s put it that way,” he said.

After siphoning hydrogen and sulfur into the pants of participants using these products, he measured the ratio of chemicals that remained. Since charcoal does not absorb hydrogen, if the ratio was one to zero, the sulfur compound was absorbed completely.

The study found that the pantaloons were more than 90 percent effective in absorbing the materials, equally so in men and women. The pads were 60 percent effective, and the cushions were least effective.

Levitt does not plan to market the most effective pantaloons, because, unlike Conant, he does not believe there is a great need for them.

Jane Simoson, a teacher from Iowa, disagrees. She initially bought the pad as a gag gift for her husband, and ended up using it herself. She often wonders why people don’t take the product more seriously, because it can be so effective in capturing frequent foul odors. She wishes they were required wearing for everyone on long flights.

“My friends always ask me why I’m not embarrassed to talk about this,” she said, after a high-pitched giggle. “Why can’t we talk about flatulence that everybody has?”

email: lgc2112@columbia.edu