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Not to be sniffed at: The weird and stupid world of ‘condom snorting’

In previous blogs I have examined some bizarre (and arguably extremely frivolous) human behaviours such as ‘used condom fetishism’ and ‘cremainlining’ (i.e., the snorting of human cremated remains). Today’s blog takes a brief look at ‘condom snorting’, something that I never would have believed existed but having seen dozens of YouTube clips of teenagers engaging in the behaviour, I have to admit that it is no myth. (There are also various newspapers who have compiled a selection of condom snorting videos such as the page on the Philadelphia Post website).

I often get asked where I get the ideas to write my blogs and on this occasion I was simply sent a press cutting by one of my PhD students who suggested that I might like to write about this bizarre practice. The article my student sent me was from a British tabloid newspaper (The Sun). The author of the article (Ian Garland) began by reporting that:

“A teenage girl unravels a condom on camera, pushes it up her nose and snorts it – before gagging as she pulls it out of her mouth. The pretty brunette is the latest teen to take part in a vile and deadly new internet craze called The Condom Challenge. Dozens of youngsters have posted similar videos on YouTube – including two giggling British girls who perform the sick stunt side-by-side on camera. The horrifying fad has been condemned by other internet users. One commenter wrote: ‘Why the hell would people do something so stupid?’ Another added: “Sheer stupidity. This is sick and disgusting’”

The girl snorting the condom was Amber-Lynn Strong, and the video she uploaded to YouTube went viral and got over 2.2 million views before being removed.  In addition to The Sun, the video (and the “condom snorting craze”) was discussed in many other media outlets including the Huffington Post, Metro, Massive, Gawker, and Buzzfeed. Kat Stoeffel writing for New York’s online magazine The Cut wrote:

“Teenagers are snorting condoms up their noses and pulling them out of their mouths, on camera and on the Internet, that raises more questions than it answers. A YouTube search for ‘condom challenge’ yields more than 200,000 results, most of them [not safe for work] due to gross noises. Is this the ‘gateway sexual activity’? Or is this what happens when there’s no sex [education]? Is it an elaborate ruse to buy and possess condoms? And is this better or worse than the condom’s intended purpose?”

Following the posting of many ‘condom snorting’ videos on YouTube, almost all newspaper articles reported that medical experts around the world were advising teenagers not to engage in the activity because it can cause infections, coughing fits, vomiting and, in extreme cases, death. An article in Massive magazine claimed that hospitals around the world had “seen the arrival of teens with condoms stuck in the back of their throat, leaving them helpless and needing assistance to remove the condoms”. The Sun’s resident medic Dr Carol Cooper reported in The Sun article that:

“[Condom snorting is] shocking and incredibly stupid. The nose is connected to the back of the mouth – it’s also connected to the airwaves. There’s every possibility something you push up your nose will end up in your windpipe, or in your lungs. With potentially fatal results.”

However, another article by Samantha Cheney in the US Metro newspaper interviewed a leading physician in Australia (Dr. Joe Kosterich) who provided an arguably more balanced view and was quoted as saying:

“Although it is highly unlikely to be fatal it could trigger a coughing fit in some. The nasal linings could get irritated but this would be annoying rather than serious. If it were to get stuck it would make for a pretty embarrassing trip to the E.R.”.

There was a lot of reader reaction to the article in The Sun some of which pointed out that although the practice might be stupid, (i) there was no evidence that the practice had caused any large-scale medical problems, and that (ii) the practice wasn’t new. Typical comments included the following:

  • Extract 1: “Apparently, no-one has ever died or been injured from doing this. [People] have been doing it for over 20 years. It is not new. There were almost 280,000 videos of kids doing this before YouTube pulled all the [videos]. So, maybe a million+ kids have done this and not a one has suffered dire effects? I know it may be ‘shocking’, but until I see [legitimate statistics] of how many kids have been hurt/or have died from doing this, I am not going to lose any sleep over it” (Perlins).
  • Extract 2: “This is so stupid but not new. People were doing this when I was younger [but] it’s just you see more of it now due to the internet, I’m only 30 so not too long ago really” (Weebird).

Almost all of the literature relating to medical condom emergencies concern either ‘lost’ condoms inside body cavities following sexual activity, or from drug-smuggling ‘body packers’ who get drug-filled condoms stuck after swallowing or rectally inserting the condom-filled package. For instance, I came across a case study by Dr. Shehnaz Somjee in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Laryngology and Otology who reported the case of a 28-year old man in prison who got a cannabis-filled condom stuck in his upper oesophagus.

Having read these reports I searched the medical literature to see if I could locate any medical reports on condom snorting that had gone wrong. I only found one report of ‘accidental condom inhalation’ and that concerned a woman who accidentally inhaled a condom during oral sex with her boyfriend (and reported in a 2004 issue of the Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Sciences by Dr. C.L. Arya and colleagues). A recent study led by Dr. Maarten Timmers and published in a 2012 issue of Pediatric Emergency Care examined all the cases of foreign body-related trauma in 8149 children and adolescents in their clinic over an 18-year period (1991-2009). They collected detailed data including age, sex, type of foreign body, injury severity, and anatomical location of the foreign body. They reported that the most predominant anatomical sites where foreign bodies got stuck were the respiratory tract/gastrointestinal tract (39.1%); ears (23.9%); nose (19.4%); and extremities (8.8%). The commonest objects were coins (20.8 %), (parts of) jewelry (9.5%), and food (8.7%). None of the foreign bodies removed were condoms (although the majority of the sample were aged below 10 years).

As there are no empirical studies on condom snorting, when it comes to why teenagers would engage in the behaviour, the wider question is why they would engage in risky behaviour in the first place? I have spent my whole career researching why adolescents engage in risky behaviours such as gambling and if you ask teenagers to explain their behaviour there are a consistent set of reasons given such as engaging in the activity because (i) it is fun, exciting, mood-enhancing, and/or dangerous, (ii) others around them do it (friends, relatives), (iii) they have a low boredom threshold, (iv) it is an act of rebellion against parents and other ‘authority’ adults, and (v) it may change others’ views on how they are perceived (with the person engaging in the act hoping they will be viewed more positively by their peers).

To me, the Condom Challenge is akin to other challenges usually taken on by teenagers in an attempt to impress their friends. For instance, there are thousands of YouTube videos with young people taking the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ (where a tablespoon of cinnamon is put into someone’s mouth and the challenge is to swallow all of it within a 60-second period without drinking any water). It’s virtually impossible to do (it burns, it makes you cough, and you’ll most probably regret having tried in the first place) but it hasn’t stopped people trying.

Some recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Dr. Agnieszka Tymula and colleagues at the New York University reported that adolescents were riskier in uncertain situations, and more willing than adults to accept ambiguity and take action even when they don’t fully understand the consequences. Interestingly the study found that adolescents were generally no more risky in their behaviour than adults but (in a gambling-related task) they went for the risky option more often when the outcome was not exactly known. In reports to the media, Dr. Tymula said that:

“Teenagers’ high tolerance to ambiguity is compounded by the fact that they often put themselves in situations where they might not even recognize the ambiguity of the full spectrum of consequences. The acceptance of the unknown makes teenagers engage in riskier behaviour”.

Unless condom snorting becomes an epidemic that leads to serious health risks, I can’t foresee there being any scientific research on the topic although I wouldn’t be surprised if a few extreme cases make it into the medical literature.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Alvarez, A. (2013). What is the Condom Challenge and why are there videos? ABC News, April 17. Located at: http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/Entertainment/condom-challenge-videos-youtube-bad-idea/story?id=18977460#.UXfoULXvtqU

Arya, C.L., Gupta, R. & Arora, V.K. (2004). Accidental condom inhalation. Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Sciences, 46, 55-58.

Cheney, S. (2013). Snorting condoms becomes latest YouTube craze. Metro, June 20. Located at: http://www.metro.us/philadelphia/entertainment/2013/06/20/snorting-condoms-becomes-latest-youtube-craze/

Garland, I. (2013). Condom snorting: teens take part in vile and deadly new internet craze. The Sun, April 16. Located at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/features/4890174/condom-snorting-the-vile-and-deadly-new-internet-trend.html

Huffington Post (2013). Condom Challenge: Teen condom snorting trend hits YouTube. April 15. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/15/condom-challenge-snorting-condoms-videos_n_3085258.html

Somjee, S. (1991). A narcotic foreign body in the throat. Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 105, 774-775.

Stoeffel, K. (2013). Why are teenagers snorting their condoms? The Cut, April 17. Located at: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/04/why-are-teenagers-snorting-their-condoms.html

Timmers, M., Snoek, K.G., Gregori, D., Felix, J.F., van Dijk, M. Sebastian A.B. (2012). Foreign bodies in a pediatric emergency department in South Africa. Pediatric Emergency Care, 28, 1348-1352.

Tymula, A., Belmaker, L. A. R., Roy, A. K., Ruderman, L., Manson, K., Glimcher, P. W., & Levy, I. (2012). Adolescents’ risk-taking behavior is driven by tolerance to ambiguity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 17135-17140.

Wheeler, T. (2013). Condom snorting, the latest craze. Massive (Volume 2, Issue 5), July 22. Located at: http://www.massivemagazine.org.nz/blog/9716/condom-snorting-the-latest-craze/

High interest: Is jenkem hokum?

While I was researching a previous blog on “cremainlining” (i.e., people who allegedly snort the ashes of dead people), I came across a number of press stories (all from the end of 2007) that American teenagers were allegedly using ‘jenkem’ and that it was becoming an epidemic in terms of its usage. Since the 2007 reports surfaced in the US, many further press reports and stories have questioned whether there is any evidence of jenkem use at all.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, jenkum is a street drug (allegedly an auditory and visual hallucinatory inhalant) that is made from fermented human faeces and urine and according to users is more potent than cannabis and (according to news reports) gives “a powerful high” and has dissociation properties. The effects are alleged to last for about an hour, and it is sometimes known by the name ‘butthash’. Emma Guest describes jenkem as:

“Fermented human sewage, scraped from pipes and stored in plastic bags for a week or so, until it gives off numbing, intoxicating fumes” (from her 2003 book Children of AIDS: Africa’s Orphan Crisis)

Reports of its use first surfaced during the 1990s when news stories (including one by the BBC) started appearing about its use by Zambian children and teenagers living in Lusaka because it cost next to nothing to make. The correspondent who covered the story for the BBC (Ishbel Matheson) witnessed the practice first-hand:

At the Lusaka sewage ponds, two teenage boys plunge their hands into the dark brown sludge, gathering up fistfuls and stuffing it into small plastic bottles. They tap the bottles on the ground, taking care to leave enough room for methane to form at the top. A sour smell rises in the hot sun, but the boys seem oblivious to the stench and the foul nature of their task. They are manufacturing ‘Jenkem’, a disgusting, noxious mixture made from fermented sewage. It is cheap, potent and very popular among the thousands of street-children in Lusaka. When they cannot afford glue or are too scared to steal petrol, these youngsters turn to Jenkem as a way of getting high… Nobody knows exactly where the idea for making Jenkem came from, but it has been used by street-children in Lusaka for at least two years. Nason Banda of the Drug Enforcement Agency is not proud when he says that it is unique to Zambia. He shudders when he sees the boys at the sewage ponds, scavenging for faecal matter to make Jenkem”.

Jenkem derives its name from an African brand of glue named ‘Genkum’ which became the generic name for all types of glue used by African teenage glue sniffers. According to an interview conducted by Jamie Pietras in Salon magazine, Fumito Ichinose (an American expert on anesthesia was quoted as saying that “the inhalation of gases like those produced from jenkem could result in hypoxia, a lack of oxygen flow to the body that could be alternately euphoric and physically dangerous”. Pietras also reported that:

“Psychedelic researchers are unconvinced that huffing fecal fumes ever caught on in the U.S. ‘It is potentially believable to me that a handful of extremely experimental people have tried this, but it is also quite easy for me to believe that no one in the U.S. has actually produced and inhaled sewage gas of their own,’ says Earth Erowid, co-creator of Erowid.com, a repository of documented narcotic experiences, in an e-mail. The communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Jag Davies, is equally skeptical. Davies says no one at MAPS, which supports research into the medical use of hallucinogens, has heard of jenkem use and certainly not jenkem research in the United States”.

An article on jenkum in Wikipedia reported that:

In 2002, Project Concern International Zambia and Fountain of Hope released a report entitled ‘Rapid Assessment of Street Children In Lusaka’ where jenkem is listed as the third most popular drug among Lusaka’s street children, following Dagga (cannabis) and “glue and Dagga” but ahead of ‘Ballan’ (uncured tobacco) and petrol”.

It wasn’t until September 2007 that alleged use of jenkem by American adolescents first emerged following a bulletin about jenkem use issued by Corporal Disarro at Collier County’s Sheriff’s Department in Florida. The bulletin was instigated following an email to Disarro from a concerned parent regarding “a new drug called Jenkem”. The parent told Disarro that her child had learned about Jenkem through various conversations with several students at Palmetto Ridge High school. Disarro then researched the existence of the drug including a report on the TOTSE website.

However, the bulletin distributed across many US states was based on information from the dubious TOTSE website, and later admitted as a hoax by the person who posted the original article. (The TOTSE – Temple of the Screaming Electron – website was based in San Francisco and published on controversial and/or unusual subjects). However, the story spread and was reported by many major US news outlets including the Washington Post newspaper and the Fox News television channel. The story eventually spread to other countries including national television coverage in Australia.

From all my own reading on the topic it would appear that some American teenagers have tried jenkem (most likely as a result of hearing about it on the news) and even video recorded the experience. There are certainly videos on YouTube of jenkem being made and used. However, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for widespread jenkem use except perhaps in Lusaka where the story originated.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Guest, E. (2003). Children of AIDS: Africa’s Orphan Crisis. London: Pluto Press.

Matheson, I. (1999). Children high on sewage. BBC News, July 30. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/406067.stm

Mikkelson, B. & Mikkelson, D. (2011). Jenkum. Snopes.com, July 28. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/jenkem.asp

Morgan, S. (2007). Drug Scare: Kids in Florida are Getting High by Sniffing Feces. Stop The Drug War, November 5. Located at: http://stopthedrugwar.org/speakeasy/2007/nov/05/drug_scare_kids_florida_are_gett

Pietras, J. (2007). Smoke this! Salon, November 9. Located at: http://www.salon.com/2007/11/09/jenkem/

Wikipedia (2012). Jenkem. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenkem

Ashes to ashes: Does “cremainlining” really exist?

I’m starting today’s blog with a news story from May 13th 1993 that occurred in Boynton Beach (Florida, US) and can be found on the Snopes.com website:

“When Nathan Radlich’s house was burgled, thieves left his TV, his VCR, and even left his watch. What they did take was ‘generic white cardboard box filled with greyish-white powder’. (That at least is the way the police described it.) A spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale police said ‘that it looked similar to cocaine and they’d probably thought they’d hit the big time.’ Then Nathan stood in front of the TV cameras and pleaded with the burglars: ‘Please return the cremated remains of my sister, Gertrude. She died three years ago. Well, the next morning, the bullet-riddled corpse of a drug dealer known as Hoochie Pevens was found on Nathan’s doorstep. The cardboard box was there too; about half of Gertrude’s ashes remained. And there was this note. It said: ‘Hoochie sold us the bogus blow, so we wasted Hoochie. Sorry we snorted your sister. No hard feelings. Have a nice day’”

This story is arguably the first instance of “cremainlining” (the snorting of someone’s cremated ashes). However, the myth-busting website Snopes says that the part about ‘cremainlining’ is simply not true. In fact, Barbara Mikkelson, author of the online article for Snopes said that no dead body turned up on Radlich’s doorstep, and no note was left by the people who bought the “drugs”. Mikkelson also says that even the reference to Radlich appealing on television for the return of his sister’s ashes was made up just to tell a better story. Fast forward to London (UK) seven years later when this gem of a story did the rounds in British newspapers such as The Sun.

“Cocaine-crazy thieves tried to snort powder they found in an English housewife’s living room, not realizing it was the ashes of her dead dog, according to a British press report…The burglars thought they had hit the jackpot when they saw the powder marked “Charlie” – slang for cocaine – in a dainty ceramic pot on pet-lover Dee Blyth’s mantelpiece, said the report in The Sun. But they were unaware the pot was an urn and the “drugs” really the remains of her beloved Newfoundland Charlie, who died in 1997. A policeman called to investigate the break-in at Chadwell Heath fell about laughing when he saw the burglars had arranged the ashes in cocaine-style lines. “I’d love to see their faces when these thieves realize,” said Blyth. “It was horrible knowing they were in my house, but the idea of them trying to get high on a dead dog certainly made me feel a bit better. ‘I didn’t realize the significance until the policeman started laughing’”

While the burglary did indeed take place, there is actually no evidence that the thieves engaged in any unintentional cremainlining. More recently, in April 2007, Keith Richards, the guitarist in The Rolling Stones, was interviewed by the New Musical Express (NME) about his lifelong drug exploits. In that interview he was asked what the strangest thing he had ever tried to snort. He replied by saying he had snorted his father Bert’s cremated ashes mixed with cocaine. He told the NME: “My dad wouldn’t have cared” and then added that the snorted mixture “went down pretty well, and I’m still alive”. However, in his 2010 autobiography (“Life”), Richards reveals the truth behind the whole story (pp.611-612) which was a lot less ‘rock ‘n’ roll’:

“After having Dad’s ashes in a big black box for six years, because I really couldn’t bring myself to scatter him around, I finally planted a sturdy English oak to spread him around. And as I took the lid of the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out onto the table. I couldn’t just brush him off, so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue”.

On the 15th December 2010, five teenage burglars in the US broke into a woman’s house in Silver Springs (Florida, US) and all snorted what they thought was cocaine or heroin but were in fact the ashes of a dead man and two Great Dane dogs. They stole jewelry, electronic equipment, and two urns (one containg the dead man’s ashes, and the other the cremated remains of the two dogs). Waldo Soroa (aged 19 years), Matrix Andaluz (18), Jose David Diaz Marrero (19), and two juveniles who could not be named were eventually arrested on charges of burglary and grand theft.

Earlier this year, it was alleged that a 51-year old man in Florida (why does Florida seem to be the epicentre of many of these cremainlining stories?) – Joseph Pointer – stole a dead woman’s ashes and told the dead woman’s mother that he was going to snort the remains. Pointer was living with a woman called Angela Speakman who shared the cremated remains of her sister (who in 2008 had been killed in a car accident) with her parents. On moving out of the house he shared with Speakman, Pointer stole the ashes. He then drove past Angela’s mother’s house allegedly shouting  “I’ve got your dead daughter’s ashes and I’m going to snort them”. Pointer was arrested before he could snort the ashes but was charged with grand theft and jailed.

Just to finish with, I did mention in a previous blog I wrote on people’s fascination with death, the story of the woman who was “addicted to eating the ashes of her late husband” from the US television documentary series My Strange Addiction. The woman in question lost her husband following a fatal asthma attack and allegedly developed “a strong compulsion” to keep his ashes by her side at all times that then developed into eating the ashes. She says the ashes eating began when she was first transferring her husband’s cremated remains from a box into an ornamental urn. She accidentally got some of the ashes on her finger and “not wanting to just brush them off, licked them off, starting a habit that has become compulsive”. At the time of the television programme being recorded (and despite the ashes tasting horrible) she had been eating the ashes for two months and had consumed approximately six pounds of the ashes. In this particular case, the behaviour appears to be an unusual type of pica (i.e., the behaviour in which individuals eat non-nutritive items or substances) and which in some cases has been shown to be compulsive. Other online commentators have speculated that the eating of her husband’s ashes is a way of symbolically holding onto her husband in the easiest way possible.

So what are we to conclude? Certainly ashes have been ingested by a few loved ones, and there appears to be some evidence that a few thieves may have snorted cremated human remains mistakenly thinking it was cocaine during a burglary (a case of ‘crim0-cremainlining’ perhaps?). However, there doesn’t seem to be a single case of anyone doing it because they got any pleasure or enjoyment out of it.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Daily Mail (2011). Dumb, dumber and dumbest: Burglars snort ashes of a man and two dogs after they mistook them for cocaine, January 20. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1348820/Burglars-snort-ashes-man-2-dogs-mistaking-cocaine.html

Geekosystem (2011). Woman is addicted to eating the ashes of her late husband. August 9. Located at: http://www.geekosystem.com/woman-eats-husbands-ashes/

Herzberg, R. (2012). Man steals dead woman’s ashes and threatens to snort them. The Dream Demon, April 17. Located at: http://www.dreamindemon.com/2012/04/17/joseph-pointer-steals-dead-womans-ashes-threatens-snort/

Mikkelson, B. (2012). Cremainlining. Snopes, July 2011, Located at: http://www.snopes.com/horrors/cannibal/cocaine.asp

MSNBC News (2007). Keith Richards says he snorted father’s ashes, April 4. Located at: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/17933669/ns/today-entertainment/t/keith-richards-says-he-snorted-fathers-ashes/

Richards, K. (2010). Life. London: Orion Books.

Zipadeeday (2000). Thieves snort the line of a dog, November 6. Located at: http://www.zipadeeday.com/story/17/thieves-snort-a-line-of-dog/