Answer Man

Answer Man: Just what does the ‘Q’ in Q-tips mean?

Q. Here’s one I’ve puzzled over for years: What in the world does the Q stand for in Q-tips?

— D.K., of Cahokia

A. It’s funny how sometimes people can get the world to beat a path to their door for all the wrong reasons. In part, that’s what Leo Gerstenzang may have done when he developed the now hugely popular cotton swab.

According to legend, Gerstenzang had a light bulb flash in his head after seeing his wife bathe their baby.

“One day in 1923, Gerstenzang found himself watching his wife applying cotton wads to toothpicks in an attempt to reach hard-to-clean areas (such as the inside of ears),” according to a story on “Gerstenzang, inspired, soon produced a one-piece cotton swab.”

By then living in New York, the 31-year-old Warsaw native soon founded the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Co. to market his new product, which he initially called Baby Gays.

By 1926, he changed the name to Q-tips Baby Gays, with the “Q” standing for “quality” (no more fidgeting around with cotton balls and toothpicks). Eventually Baby Gays was dropped and Q-tips became a marketing sensation.

Of course now the American Academy of Family Physicians (among others) constantly warns people never to use such swabs in the ear canal to remove cerumen (ear wax). Such practice can cause wax blockages in the ear, resulting in pain, diminished hearing and perforated eardrums that can require surgery to repair.

The orangy wax may be ugly, but it helps lubricate and clean the ear and even protects against bacteria, insects and water.

“Use of a cotton-tip applicator to clean the ear seems to be the leading cause of otitis externa (inflammation of the ear) in children and should be avoided,” according to a 2004 study cited in The Laryngoscope that looked into causes of the common earache in kids.

Q. Why do they suggest changing the batteries in your smoke alarms every time the time changes in fall and spring? I checked the batteries in mine and the expiration date is 2017. Why would you throw away a perfectly good battery that has never been used?

— Ken Bluemner, of Caseyville

A. While the advice may sound like a sneaky way to boost the Duracell stock price, your question reveals a faulty assumption that could wind up burning you in the end.

Like you, I pop a fresh battery in my detector, which I then stick back on the wall and usually forget about. And, like you, I would guess many people assume that the battery will stay fresh until the package expiration date. After all, it’s not being used, right?

Not true. A smoke detector works by sounding an alarm when a sensor detects smoke particles in the air. But to do that, the sensor has to be powered continually. So just as your HDTV draws a small amount of electricity even when it’s off, that sensor is using a teensy-tiny amount of energy from your battery at all times. One online geek even figured out that his drew 6 microamps constantly with 150-microamp bursts every 10 seconds. Using a rough average, he determined that the power draw would drain a standard 9-volt battery in 10,000 hours — about 14 months or so. So you probably want to replace a standard battery at least once a year.

Should you do it more frequently?

That may depend on how religious you are about maintaining your detectors, Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour tells me.

Here’s the best advice: Test your detectors at least once a month or, preferably, every week. Just get in the habit of, say, on Saturday walking by your detectors and pressing the test button.

If you do this, you can probably get by without changing batteries until you hear that annoying chirp telling you the battery is low on juice.

The trouble is that many people have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind relationship with their detectors, Pour said. Not only do they not test them regularly, they also may pirate those 9-volt batteries temporarily for other uses, further weakening their power reserve — or forgetting to replace them entirely. As a result, the detector may become too dead to even chirp, but you think it’s perfectly fine. It’s for these people that firefighters nationwide urge battery changes twice a year just to make sure your detectors are functional.

Pour offers two other bits of quality advice: Those sensors eventually wear out, so you are urged to replace the entire detector every 10 years. And, if you’re tired of worrying about batteries, buy something like the Kidde detector with a sealed-in lithium battery that’s good for the 10-year life of the detector. It’s just $20 on

Pour says keeping your detectors powered and a family escape plan fresh in your mind can take a lot of heat off you if a fire should start.

Today’s trivia

In the original “Star Trek” TV series, what were Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s operating instruments in real life?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: If you ever thought that Big Bird on “Sesame Street” was just a big turkey, well, you’re partly right — at least on the outside. The costume of TV’s most famous 8-foot, 2-inch avian is covered in white turkey feathers dyed yellow. Most sources put the number at about 4,000, but the Count swears he took inventory and found at least 5,961.

According to Muppet wrangler Michelle Hickey, the feathers are hand-glued and backed with a ribbon that is hand-stitched on. Feathers are rated A to D with A- and B-rated feathers used almost exclusively although some C feathers may fill in toward the bottom. The feathers reportedly have to be replaced every two weeks or after an outside appearance.

According to performer Carroll Spinney, Jim Henson, the creator, originally wanted Spinney to wear the costume backwards so Big Bird’s knees would bend backwards just like a real bird.