Russian President Vladimir Putin is so worried about enemies getting a look at his poop that he reportedly employs a special team of people who retrieve his excrement wherever and whenever he travels.
The 69-year-old strongman relies on Federal Protection Service agents to pick up his waste when he goes abroad and ferry it back to Russia where it can be disposed of discretely, according to recent reports in French news magazine Paris Match.
Why all the sneakiness and subterfuge? Putin — who many Russian analysts and insiders claim is suffering from cancer — is nervous that foreign intelligence services could gauge his health by analyzing his waste matter. His fears are not far-fetched: Experts in fecal analysis say a stool sample can give many insights into an individual’s overall health and diet, including medical treatments the person is undergoing.
“If he was on chemotherapy then it may show up,” Ben de Lacy Costello, an associate professor of biosensing and diagnostics at University of the West England Bristol, said of Putin. “Depending on what kind of drug it was and how it was metabolized by the liver and the excretion pathway.”
Putin joins a long line of leaders allegedly caught up in excrement espionage. Soviet Prime Minister Joseph Stalin, for instance, is said to have obtained stool samples from Chairman Mao Zedong during the Chinese leader’s 10-day visit to the Soviet Union in 1949. For that trip, the Russians built special toilets connected to retrieval boxes, which were then sent to a laboratory for detailed analysis.
In 1999, Israel’s Mossad agents used a similar ruse during the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein in Amman. In attendance was the ailing Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who was then suffering from diabetes and cancer. Working with their Jordanian counterparts, the Mossad moved Assad’s waste from his hotel room to a special collection device in order to obtain clearer details about his health.
It is believed that the CIA collected the waste of both former Russian leader Milkhail Gorbachev and current Ugandan dictator Yoweri Museveni during their visits to Washington. And in 2006, George W. Bush reportedly had his own toilet sent to Vienna, Austria, ahead of an official trip to ensure the composition of his waste matter remained a state secret.
Although some may consider these measures extreme, human waste has long been considered a fairly reliable health indicator. During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health experts conducted wastewater analysis to assess shifts in coronavirus infection rates in local populations. While the science of analyzing individual anatomies remains far less precise, Costello said leaders like Putin could have cause for concern should their waste fall into the wrong hands.
“If you were paranoid and didn’t want to take a chance, I’d probably say, ‘Yes’, someone could glean some kind of health information from stool,” he said.
But many professors of poo caution that this science remains limited by a lack of sufficient data. While today’s advanced tests can give scientists clues about an individual’s particular health conditions and lifestyle, they “cannot yet be used to accurately predict disease without additional clinical information,” said Pieter Dorrestein, co-director of the Institute for Metabolomics Medicine and a professor at the School of Pharmacy at the University of California, San Diego.
Still, stool samples can pretty accurately identify diseases of the gastrointestinal tract itself. Costello said there is “some good evidence” that inflammatory diseases of the bowel, including inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome, can alter the compounds of stool in a way that is detectable through fecal analysis.
Stool analysis could also be used to identify some specific cancers, such as colon cancer, as well as key medications such as chemotherapy and the radioactive iodine used to treat thyroid cancer — the specific type of cancer Putin is said to have.
It’s not just what’s inside poop that can reveal a person’s health, but its overall appearance, too. “Stool can be assessed in terms of color, consistency, quantity, shape, odor, etc., to indicate disease states,” said Costello. Celiac disease, pancreatitis or even bile duct cancer can all impact the color of excrement.
In other words, anything but the elegant “S-shaped poop” fecal formation made famous by TV doctor (and now GOP Senate candidate) Dr. Mehmet Oz might hint that all is not well in Putin’s body.