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Beware the triple dog dare!

Don’t lick metal in freezing weather

December 2, 2010
By ERIC AYRES, The Scene

It's a phenomenon that's as quirky as the holiday classic "A Christmas Story" itself, and like the movie, it's somehow unavoidable every year.

Some kids can't seem to resist the temptation of putting their tongues to metal posts in sub-freezing weather to see if the legend is true - if it will really stick there.

Like the infamous scene in "A Christmas Story" where the character Flick caves to peer pressure and the "triple dog dare" from Ralphie and the boys to stick his tongue on a pole outside his school, at least one curious youngster somewhere across the nation carries the torch and continues this holiday tradition every year, finding the same results.

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The movie's popularity may contribute to the fact that kids even want try this stunt, and the iconic status of the film may also likely lend to the fact that each time a child gets their tongue stuck to a frozen pole, the incident makes the local news.

Last year in January, a 10-year-old boy in Hammond, Ind. - as a result of a dare - got his tongue stuck to a streetlight pole during a cold burst of winter weather. Also last winter, a boy in Boise, Idaho also found out about the legitimacy of this science experiment the hard way, and a teenage girl in Spokane, Wash. got her tongue stuck to a flagpole outside her school. The fire department - with lights flashing and sirens blaring - arrived on the scene with news crews following behind.

Although it's hard to explain why kids don't learn a lesson that's clearly documented accurately on film in "A Christmas Story," it's fairly easy to explain exactly why your tongue really does stick to a metal post in freezing temperatures.

In fact, experts from Cornell University have spelled it out.

"The short answer is that the water on your tongue freezes solid between the skin on your tongue and the cold metal," said Frank J. DiSalvo, professor of physical science at Cornell University.

"For this to happen, the temperature of the metal must be below 32 degrees F, otherwise the water cannot freeze. The lower the temperature of the metal, the quicker your tongue will stick. Even your hand may stick to cold metal if your hand is a little sweaty, like when you pull your hand out of a warm glove."

According to DiSalvo's "Ask a Scientist!" answer, the key is metal's high thermal conductivity. This property of metal aids in the transfer of heat from a higher temperature to a lower temperature. The heat from your tongue is being transferred to the cold metal faster than the blood circulating in your body can reheat the tip of your tongue. Thus, the thin layer of saliva on your tongue freezes almost instantly upon touching the cold metal, bonding your tongue to the cold post.

Materials like plastic or rubber have lower thermal conductivity, DiSalvo noted, so sticking to these materials is not likely even in extremely cold temperatures. A very cold Popsicle or ice cube may cause this sticking to happen, because of thermal conductivity, which is higher in ice, but not nearly as high as in metals.

So what do you do if your tongue is stuck to a cold metal pole? The first important thing to do is not panic. Instinct to pull away can get you in trouble. In fact, in most documented cases, kids tend to tear tongue tissue and cause bleeding and mild injuries.

The ideal way of detaching from the pole is to have warm water poured over your tongue until the frozen bond is broken. Unlike in the movie, where Flick is plucked by the pole by members of the fire department, rescue personnel in real life tend to know the secret of removing tongues to frozen poles. To avoid embarrassment and a sure appearance on the evening news, get a friend to fetch the warm glass of water before calling the e-squad.

But what if your lapse of common sense prompted you to attempted this experiment on your own with no one around?

Medical professionals suggest using your hands to warm up the pole near the point where your tongue is attached. A key is to get as close to the pole as possible without bringing more of the surface of your tongue in contact with the pole. Then, with a gloved hand or dry - repeat dry - bare hand, rub the metal around the area where your tongue is stuck in an attempt to heat it up to a temperature above freezing, which should allow your body heat to melt the ice and free your tongue without injury.

Regardless of the fact that these tips can help - and the fact that common sense should prevail and prevent this situation from happening, the phenomenon of people being curious enough to stick their tongues to a cold pole will continue to appear. It's unavoidable. In terms of potential injuries, it's fairly bad ... but not as bad as putting your eye out.

Ayres can be reached at eayres@timesleaderonline.com.

 
 

 

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