Why you should care
Because the human body is roomier than you might think.
One October night in 1972, a 21-year-old man was brought to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, his bloated stomach grumbling audibly. The culprit? A circular bolus of hashish tied in a condom. It was 6 centimeters at its greatest diameter, roughly the size of an orange. The man had swallowed it 13 days earlier on a trip to Lebanon — the first reported case of body packing, or smuggling of illegal drugs by swallowing them.
But drugs are just one of the many things that people have attempted to conceal in their bodies. Among other items that have gone down the hatch are guns, wool, gold, a whole frozen chicken, and $51.22 in cash and loose change. The gastrointestinal tract is a favorite hiding spot among people trying to smuggle stuff. But how much can it hold? According to Swedish researchers who observed the colon capacities for 350 adults in a 1952 study:
Now, this was a constipated individual. For a “regular” person, the average capacity is about 1,450 cc, or approximately 6 cups.
After the gastrointestinal tract, the vagina is the next most common storage space, says Ruben Olmedo, a toxicologist and emergency physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. It’s a popular orifice for smuggling drugs into music festivals — there’s even a Reddit thread devoted to it.
It really depends on the size of the person and their tolerance limit.
Ruben Olmedo, toxicologist & emergency physician
People also stuff contraband inside the rectum, which is more challenging than swallowing items (warning: stashing stuff up your butt causes an almost immediate need to defecate). And some go to even greater extremes: In 1990, a Colombian man surgically implanted half a pound of cocaine in each of his thighs.
James Gill, who served as New York City’s chief medical officer for 15 years, studied 50 cases of body-packer deaths. He told OZY that the largest stashed contraband he found was about 2.6 pounds of (swallowed) drug packets — an amount equal in weight to a dozen apples.
So, is there a maximum amount that a human body can hold? There’s not a definite answer, says Olmedo, explaining, “It really depends on the size of the person and their tolerance limit.”
What we do know, though, is that body packers are becoming savvier. “Now, with sophisticated, airtight packaging, it’s harder for packets to be detected through scanning,” Olmedo says. Also, body packers don’t make great patients for emergency physicians. The smugglers can be hesitant to admit what they’ve done or to identify all of the locations where contraband has been stashed, which makes them harder to treat, Olmedo explains. That presents a challenge, he says, “because it only takes one packet to rupture to cause death.” Now, that’s a tough pill to swallow.