I'm from security, may I see your earwax?

One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, you might identify yourself not by speaking into a microphone, putting your thumb on a fingerprint reader, or peering into a retina scanner but by allowing a machine to sniff your armpit or examine your earwax.


<digression>Do you know that the medical term for earwax is "cerumen"?</digression>

The background to these slightly gross ways of identifying people comes from research conducted by the Monell Chemical Senses Center "the world's only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to interdisciplinary basic research on the senses of taste and smell."

As reported on the Monell web site, the study's senior author, George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at Monell commented:

Our previous research has shown that underarm odors can convey a great deal of information about an individual, including personal identity, gender, sexual orientation, and health status ... We think it possible that earwax may contain similar information.

To test the earwax theory 16 healthy men had their earwax collected, placed in a vial, and heated for 30 minutes to promote the release of airborne volatile organic compounds. which were then analyzed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

The analysis revealed 12 VOCs were consistently present in the earwax of all the men. However, the amount of VOCs varied as a function of the subject's ethnic background, with Caucasians having greater amounts of 11 of the 12 VOCs than East Asians.

"In essence, we could obtain information about a person's ethnicity simply by looking in his ears. While the types of odorants were similar, the amounts were very different," said study lead author Katharine Prokop-Prigge, a Monell chemist.

So, be warned, your identity, ethnicity, and lifestyle  could all potentially be revealed unless you shower a lot and keep your ears very clean. Just wait until the TSA droid at the checkpoint asks you to lift your arm ... 

A final quote from the researchers:

Earwax is a neglected body secretion whose potential as an information source has yet to be explored.

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