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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ozone and Improbable Research

Air Date: Week of

Have you ever wondered how ozone affects a condom's effectiveness? Mark Abrahams, editor of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research has, and comments on some recent research on the subject.


NUNLEY: Smog may have some other, more perplexing effects, that could contribute to some unexpected problems. A lot of very unsafe sex. Even the growing population. Editor Mark Abrahams of the Annals of Improbable Research explains.

ABRAHAMS: First, let me tell you about ozone. While too little ozone high up in the atmosphere is worrisome, too much of the stuff at ground level can cause problems, too. Ozone is garden variety oxygen that's gotten itself some extra electrical charge. It's very unstable. It likes to react with all sorts of things. Ozone bleaches, it poisons, it generally makes its presence known. So much for ozone.

Second, the growing population. The world has more and more people. As we discover how much fun it is to make more people, we get better and better at doing it. The worry is that we will make so many people that the planet gets too crowded. So much for the growing population.

Third, condoms. You probably know about condoms. So much for condoms.

Now, the connection between these 3 scientific concepts is fairly clear. Condoms are generally made of latex rubber. Ozone likes to react with latex, leaving little microscopic, teeny tiny pits all over the surface, weakening the condom. A weak condom is an unhappy condom. It's likely to burst or tear instead of keeping a stiff upper, uh, lip. Every burst condom can mean another blip in the world population total.

A group of researchers led by Richard F. Baker at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles subjected some condoms to a heavy dose of ozone. The condoms did not hold up very well. The test was done on naked condoms, that is, on condoms that were not individually packaged. When the test was done on individual clothed condoms, the results were much better.

However, there's good cause for concern even with well-packaged condoms, because at least one other common pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, has shown itself able to penetrate standard condom wrappers. So it appears that if we hold down the amount of pollutants that get dumped in the air, we might just keep the condom supply in good fighting shape and maybe, just maybe, make a wee dent in the population problem.

That's a wrap. For Living on Earth, this is the over-cautious Mark Abrahams.

NUNLEY: Mark Abrahams edits the Annals of Improbable Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.



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