The US Government Sells Human PoopNov 21, 2022
- Part of this video was sponsored by Google Domains. This is a US
sellsjust about anything you can imagine. Blueberries, steel, cigarettes, limestone, a standard bullet, and even a few things you don't want to imagine. I also see that you have household sludge in there. (Dr. Place laughs) This is household sludge. - So when you flush your toilet and it goes down the sewer and goes to a sewage treatment plant, the first step is to get rid of all the solid material. We take that, dry it, so it's a nice fine powder. I would not recommend sniffing it. - What is the purpose of all these things?
Why do they sell it and why is it so expensive? Do you ever feel like you are living inside a science fiction story or something? - You know, I've been here a long time, so I don't think about it from that perspective, but I should say yes. - Is the sci-fi element to me like someone was thinking about it? - Yes. - Is there anybody collecting that? It seems so fictional. Why should a place like this exist? There are apple leaves and peach leaves, oyster tissue, metallic zinc bars, carbon dioxide in nitrogen. In these vats of liquid nitrogen there are samples of marine animals. - Mussel samples, dolphin samples, whale samples.
Birds too, bird tissue and some
humantissue too. - But perhaps the strangest thing they sell is something really mundane. Peanut butter. - It looks like a peanut butter. It's peanut butter. it's creamy - It's probably the most expensive jar of peanut butter in the world. - Well, we essentially pay a company to make generic peanut butter. We could have 2,000 jars of generic peanut butter. And what we do is we go through and measure the fats in these jars and calculate the amount of various compounds that are in there. And indeed, we stick a label and provide a certificate at the end. - Have you ever had some of this peanut butter? - All this stuff is not for
humanconsumption because I don't know if I could tell you how old it is, but it's old enough that you probably don't want to eat it. - How much is it? - These are not sold at commercial grade prices.
So this jar of peanut butter is not $3.99 cents. This bottle, I think, is around a thousand dollars. This is not something that would be viable to make your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with. - A regular jar of peanut butter costs less than $5. And on the label you can see the ingredients and the amounts of different nutrients such as protein, fat, sugar and sodium. These values have been measured by the manufacturer using different machines and analytical techniques. But how do you know those results are accurate? Well, this is where the standard jar of
governmentpeanut butter comes into play.
It is mixed with such care and thoroughness that each jar contains exactly the same substance. - We take great care to homogenize these things. Make sure it's consistent. - It then takes years for scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, to painstakingly identify the amounts of all the different compounds in peanut butter with specified uncertainties. This peanut butter is known as standard reference material, or SRM. They sell these perfectly characterized SRM samples of peanut butter to researchers and manufacturers so they can calibrate their equipment. Essentially, the buyer knows that his equipment is working properly if, when he runs the standard peanut butter, he gets the values provided by NIST in the certificate. - We've spent a lot of time making sure we're safe and, you know, we can spend years studying the amount of fat here and trying to figure out exactly what those numbers are. - So what you're paying for isn't really the peanut butter, it's the knowledge of exactly what's in the peanut butter. - And so this is what really drives the cost of a standard reference material: our ability to state the truth.
We produce what I call the truth in a bottle. - You might think, why does it matter that my peanut butter label is accurate? But it's much more than the things on the label that NIST measures. Peanut butter actually contains naturally occurring aflatoxins. They are carcinogens that can cause liver cancer and are produced by fungi in peanuts. So if your peanut butter is made from a bad batch of peanuts, you want the factory to be able to accurately detect elevated aflatoxin levels. And they can because standard peanut butter contains a known level of aflatoxin that can be used to calibrate your equipment.
Will the FDA like to sample peanut butter and look for aflatoxins? - Many times you have commercial laboratories that measure it according to the FDA. The FDA may encourage them to use a reference material, standard reference material, to make sure they get the correct numbers. The FDA may not be handling it themselves. - There are different challenges in measuring the components of different foods. Fine powder, for example, is easier to characterize than sticky peanut butter. So it's helpful to have a standard material that closely matches the target in composition and consistency, but it's also impossible for NIST to characterize every different type of food. - We are not going to do a material of trout and perch and salmon, all these different, with the same numbers.
We're about to grab an average fish and treat it. So if you're measuring it on other fish, you can usually use it as a surrogate. - So, do you have a standard trout? - Right, yes. - Tell me about the meat homogenate. (Dr. Place laughs) - It's a mixed meat product that's been mixed thoroughly, ground into a very fine particle, and packaged in a very nice tin. - Why do you mix like chicken and pork? Why not have a chicken reference, a pork reference? - We never do this alone. We always work with these companies in the industry and say, "Hey, what kind of mixes do you need?" And then we ask for that type of material to be mixed: for a reference material to be useful, it doesn't have to be the exact material that the manufacturer wants to characterize.
It just has to be close enough. NIST
sellsabout 30 different foods that are distributed around its food triangle. At the corners of the triangle are 100% carbs, 100% fat, and 100% protein. So, based on your combination of these three macroingredients, all foods fall somewhere in this triangle. And to characterize each one, you'll want to use the closest standard reference material. - If you're trying to do your measurements and say, you know, to a regulatory authority that I'm making, you know, a food that's a kibble, but I'm comparing it to peanut butter, they're going to say, "Well, that peanut butter has a very different fat content." So what we want to give them is something, a matrix, that is as close as possible to what they are used to dealing with. - They even have a standard diet mix. - This is called typical diet.
Through surveys, they identified what the average American eats and bought it all and mixed it all together and then freeze-dried it into a nice fine powder. It is like a light gray powder and represents all the nutritional components that an average American would consume. So it accounts for the sugar content, it accounts for any protein it may have, any vitamins it may have, any fat it may have, it's all in one little jar that we mash. - In total, NIST has about 1,300 standard reference materials. - This is our warehouse. So it's about a 20,000 square foot warehouse that we store all of our inventory, our products, the SRMs.
And so we are a business. And so what excites me about this, on the technical side, is that I get to run a $20 million business within the federal government. We sell about 30,000 units a year. So each order is about three units. Half of them are sold domestically and half are sold to an international audience. - You can see all the prices on our website. Shop.nist.gov is the e-commerce store for all of these materials. You can search whatever you want. You can search for peanut butter, you can search for meat homogenate. - If I wanted to have a thousand dollars, would you sell it to me? - There is some control over who we sell to. - I feel this is unfair as if I were a scientist.
If I have a thousand dollars. NIST won't sell to just anyone, but there are plenty of websites that do. And this part of the video is sponsored by Google Domains. The easiest way to set up an online business. I have a store where I sell a product I invented called Snatoms. It is a molecular modeling kit where atoms are attached magnetically. You know, when I came up with the name Snatoms in 2015, the first step was to check if the domain name snatoms.com was available. If you have a good idea, you should claim that domain name as soon as you can.
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Plus, it automatically connects to tools like Google Workspace or Google Analytics to help me understand and grow the business. So claim your own domain name with Google Domains starting at just $12 a year. Go to domains.google/veritasium for a 20% discount on your first year. I'll put that link in the description. So thanks to Google Domains for sponsoring this part of the video. But it's not just food you need standards for. - At the beginning of the 19th century, as in 1905, there was a big problem with the quality of the steel used in the wagons, both in the locomotives and in the tracks.
It was that they knew what they had to have in the alloys to make it work. It's just that all the foundries that were making them had no way of comparing the results of the material they were making to what all the other chemists knew they should be doing. So Congress basically told the National Bureau of Standards at the time, we need you to come up with standard samples of steel so everyone can be on the same page. So what we did is, we made these standard steels, we analyzed them into all of their constituent parts, all of the elements, chromium, iron, hydrogen carbon, and then we distributed them to interested parties, again to foundries, so they can inter compare and compare your results with a known source of steel.
And those were our first products that we produced. - Steel remains one of the most important SRMs at NIST. What is your best selling product? - Ah, those are called Charpies. - Charlies? - Yes. Well, let's go see a Charpie. If you want to test how strong your steel is, what Professor Charpy came up with, Mr. Charpy, was a test where he attached a pendulum and at the end of a pendulum is a weight. And if you pull that pendulum back a certain distance, you can calculate its potential energy. At the base of the swing of this pendulum, the arc, is a vise.
And in the vice, a standard piece of metal called a Charpy is held. And this has a little V-notch in it. So the idea is that the pendulum goes through and breaks this thing and then comes up the other side. And from that you can calculate the amount of energy it took to break this piece of steel. Every company in the United States and frankly internationally now has to compare their materials to our Charpies on an annual basis because the type of steel they make is used in pipes or used in defense industries, you know, for tanks, for things that store nuclear waste.
So I have a joke. I love things that break or burn and these things break and have to be broken and can't be reused. So we sell a lot. - How many would you sell in a year? - We sell those, of all types, we sell about 8,000. - Oh. - Yes. - NIST has been making these standard reference materials for over a century. - This is what our first standard sample number one looks like. It's authentic and it's gray dust, it's limestone. We are still making the number one limestone for 110 years. And it's still so popular that we sell 40 to 50 units a year of it. - Hey. - Isn't that wild?
There are very few companies that still sell some of their original products and we do. - Most of the SRMs we have discussed so far are used for calibration. But there is another class of SRM that is used for validation. This means they are used directly in industry testing to ensure consistency. An example is cigarettes. - Evidently, smoking in bed wasa real problem. You know, people were like setting themselves on fire. And so there was a lot of regulation about how the materials in your mattress or in your sheets or your bedding had to react to a fuel source.
And we produced some standard cigarettes that essentially, along with ASTM tests, would help a manufacturer determine how flammable their furniture, bedding, or mattress was. - And for those tests to be consistent, the fires must be started with a NIST standardized cigarette. (siren blaring) Fires caused by smoking materials are the leading cause of home fire deaths in the US - products like this, but also with the regulations in place and just the educational campaigns that were carried out out have saved many, many lives. - But they also have standards for things you'd never expect, like a standard bullet. - When a bullet is fired through a gun, the rifling in the barrel imparts markings to the bullet. - Forensic labs then have to measure these grooves to match the bullet from the crime scene to others fired by the suspect weapon.
But how do you know they are accurately measuring the slots? - So this has standard markings on it. They reproduced a bullet. Putting, I think, essentially, nano-slits on it. Very, very fine markings and mapped out in this bullet. They were not shot through a gun, they were manufactured. - So to validate their equipment, forensics labs can run the standard bullet at the same time as a bullet from the crime scene, so they know their measurements are accurate. The goal of each standard is to quantify something about the world, something important that is usually quite difficult to measure (aspiration noise) like house dust. - In the early nineties, we were working with cleaning services and getting vacuum bags.
We went to hotels, we went to motels, we took all the vacuum bags we got from all these hotels and houses and everything, we mixed it up in a big pot, so it's thoroughly mixed, so each little jar has the same amount of chemicals, has the same amount of material. And then we measure everything there. And the reason why I find dust interesting is because dust, from an environmental point of view, is a very good way of knowing what you and I and our house are exposed to. - Identification of hazardous contaminants is a big part of the function of these standard reference materials, so they have various types of lead paint or water from a glacier in Greenland. - These are so rare that we have to limit distribution to one unit per customer every three years. - Oh.
Or dirt from New Jersey and Montana. - We have many soil samples. They had the permit to essentially go into a contaminated industrial site in Bozeman, Montana and collect a bunch of rocks, you know, five gallon buckets and bring them back and crush them. And so these are certified, again, for things like toxic elements. - Now, the definitive way to measure what contaminants we are exposed to is what comes out of us. That's why NIST sells household sludge. This is a record of what has left our bodies and gone down our sewers. Researchers can examine it for traces of toxins or heavy metals.
Pollutants that many of us may be exposed to without knowing it. It really is about environmental monitoring. And next year they're coming out with a real human
poopproduct. - It's been in the news quite a bit because, you know, health is related to your microbiome, right? And we're starting to understand that, you know, your gut flora and what's in your stomach is very important to your health, your mental attitude, all sorts of things. Fecal matter is an incredibly difficult matrix to measure and extract all the different components. And what this material will do is support the measurements of the metabolites.
And it will be distributed as a vial of powder, essentially. - Do you know how much they got? - A load of shit. (both laugh) - As our knowledge of the world evolves, so do the standard reference materials stored in this warehouse. NIST is preparing to release its first living standard reference material next year. The live cells will be hamster ovary cells that can produce monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies now account for five of the top 10 best-selling drugs and more than $75 billion in annual sales worldwide. When monkeypox began to spread earlier this year, one problem with diagnosing the disease was that there were no clear laboratory tests to tell if someone was infected.
NIST was able to create a positive control reference from monkeypox DNA in just 30 days. This warehouse is a very strange place to walk. So many disparate pieces of our world carefully characterized, labeled and packaged. It is a reminder that behind the scenes, invisible to most of us, there is a group of people who work tirelessly to ensure that things are what we think they are. When we eat peanut butter on toast, we can be sure that the peanut butter contains what it says on the label. When your blood work comes back with a cholesterol reading, you know it was calibrated to a standard.
And when you walk into a steel frame building, you know that steel has the proper structural and mechanical properties to support that structure. Our world works because, unknown to most of us, there is a small army of people who diligently check that what is out there aligns with standards. Even our
poop. (techno music)
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