The US Government Sells Human Poop
- Part of this video was sponsored by Google Domains. This is a US
sellsalmost anything you can imagine. Blueberries, steel, cigarettes, limestone, a standard bullet and even some things you don't want to imagine. I also see you have domestic sludge there. (Dr.Place laughs) This is domestic sludge. - So, when you flush your toilet and it goes through the sewer and it goes into a wastewater treatment plant, the first step is to get rid of all the solid material. We took that, dried it down, so it's a nice fine powder. I wouldn't recommend smelling it. - What is the purpose of all this stuff?
Why are they selling it and why is it so expensive? Does it ever feel like you're living inside a sci-fi story or something? - You know, I've been here for a long time, so I don't think it from that perspective, but I should say yes. - The science fiction element to me is like there's someone thinking about that? - Yeah. - There's someone collecting that? It seems so fictional. Like why should a place like this exist? There are apple leaves and peach leaves, oyster tissue, bars of zinc metal, carbon dioxide in nitrogen.
In these vats of liquid nitrogen, there are samples of marine animals. - Mussel samples, dolphin samples, whale samples. Birds as well, bird tissue And some
humantissue as well. - But perhaps the weirdest thing they sell is something really mundane. Peanut butter. - It looks like a peanut butter. It is peanut butter. It's creamy. - It's probably the most expensive jar of peanut butter in the whole world. - Well, we essentially pay for a company to make generic peanut butter. We might have 2000 jars of generic peanut butter. And what we do is we then go through and measure the fats in these jars and figure out how much of various compounds are in there.
And we actually then slap on a label and provide a certificate at the end. - Have you ever eaten some of this peanut butter? - All of these things are not for
humanconsumption because I don't know if I could actually tell you how old it is, but it's old enough that you probably don't want to eat it. - How much does it cost? - These are not sold at commercial grade prices. So, this jar of peanut butter is not $3.99 cents. This jar, I believe, is around a thousand dollars. This is not something that would be viable for you to make your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with. - An ordinary jar of peanut butter costs less than $5.
And on the label you can see the ingredients and the amounts of different nutrients like protein, fats, sugar, and sodium. Those 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
government's standard jar of peanut butter comes in. It is mixed up so carefully and thoroughly that each jar contains exactly the same substance. - We take great pains at homogenizing these things. Make sure it's consistent. - Then scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NIST, take years to painstakingly identify the quantities of all the different compounds in the peanut butter with specified uncertainties.
This peanut butter is then known as a 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 their equipment is working properly if, when they run the standard peanut butter, they get the values NIST supplies on the certificate. - We've spent a lot of time to make sure that we're confident and, you know, we can spend years studying the amount of fat in here and trying to figure out exactly what those numbers are. - So what you're paying for is not really the peanut butter, it's the knowledge of exactly what is in the peanut butter. - And so this is what really drives the cost of a standard reference material is our ability to assert the truth.
We produce what I call truth in a bottle. - You might think, why does it matter that the label on my peanut butter is accurate? But it is way more than the things on the label that NIST measures. Peanut butter actually contains naturally occurring aflatoxins. They're are carcinogen which can cause liver cancer and they're produced by fungi on the 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 levels of aflatoxins. And they're able to do that because the standard peanut butter contains a known level of aflatoxin that can be used to calibrate their equipment.
Will the FDA like sample peanut butters and look for aflatoxin? - A lot of times you actually have commercial laboratories that measure it in accordance to the FDA. The FDA may encourage them to use a reference material, standard reference material, to make sure they're getting the right numbers. FDA may not be handling it themselves. - There are different challenges to measuring the components of different foods. Fine powder, for example, is easier to characterize than goopy 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're not gonna make a trout and a perch and salmon material, all these different, with the same numbers.
We're kind of grab an average fish and kind of treat that. So if you're measuring it in other fish, you can usually use it as a surrogate. - So you have a standard trout? - Correct, yes. - Tell me about Meat Homogenate. (Dr. Place laughs) - It is a mixed meat product that has been mixed thoroughly, been ground into a very fine particle, and packed into a very nice tin. - Why do you mix like chicken and pork? Why not just have like a chicken reference, a pork reference? - We never do this by ourselves.
We always work with these industry companies and say, "Hey what kind of mixes do you need?" And then we request that kind of material to be blended - For a reference material to be useful, It doesn't have to be the exact material a manufacturer wants to characterize. It just has to be close enough. NIST
sellsaround 30 different food items that are spread around their food triangle. At the corners of the triangle are a 100% carbohydrate, a 100% fat, and a 100% protein. So, based on their mix of these three macro ingredients, all foods fall somewhere on this triangle.
And to characterize each one, you would want to use the closest standard reference material. - If you're trying to do your measurements and tell, you know, a regulatory authority that I'm making, you know, a food that's a kibble, but I'm measuring it against peanut butter, they're gonna be saying, "Well, that peanut butter has a wildly different fat content." So what we wanna give them is something, a matrix, that looks as much as possible as what they're 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 they purchased it all and they blended it all up and then they freeze dried it into a nice fine powder. It's like a light gray powder and this represents all the nutritional components that an average American would consume. So it represents the sugar content, it represents the proteins that you might have, any vitamins you might have, any fats you might have is all in a little jar that we puree up. - In total, NIST has nearly 1300 standard reference materials. - This is our warehouse. And so it's an approximately 20,000 square foot warehouse in which we store all of our inventory, our products, the SRMs.
And so we are a business. And so, what excites me about this, being 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 on our website. So it's shop.nist.gov is the e-commerce storefront for all these materials. You can search for whatever you want. You can search for peanut butter, you can search for meat homogenate. - If I like had a thousand dollars, would you sell that to me? - There is some control to who we sell to. - I feel like this is unfair like I'm a scientist.
If I got a thousand bucks. 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 shop where I sell a product I invented called Snatoms. It's a molecular modeling kit where the atoms snap together magnetically. You know, when I came up with the name Snatoms back 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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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 'em had no way to compare their results of the material they were making to what every other chemist knew they should be making. And so Congress basically said to National Bureau of Standards at the time, we need you to come up with standard samples of steel so that everyone can be on the same page. And so what we did was we made these standard steels, analyzed them for all their constituent parts, so all the elements, the chrome, the iron, the hydrogen carbon and then distributed that to the stakeholders, again the foundries, so that they can inter compare and compare their results to a known source of steel.
And those were our very first products that we produced. - Steel is still one of the most important SRMs at NIST. What's your best selling product? - Ah, those are called Charpies. - Charpies? - Yeah. Okay, let's go look at a Charpie. If you wanna test how strong your steel is what Professor Charpy, Mr.Charpy, came up with was a test where he set up a pendulum and at the end of a pendulum is a weight. And if you pull that pendulum up to a certain distance, you can calculate it's potential energy. At the bottom of the swing of this pendulum, the arc, is a vice.
And in the vice, is held a standard piece of metal called a Charpy. And this has a little V-notch in it. And so the idea is that the pendulum comes through and breaks this thing and then it goes up on the other side. And from that you can then calculate the amount of energy that it took to break this piece of steel. Every company in the United States and, frankly, internationally, now has to check their materials against our Charpies annually because the kind of steels they're making are used in pipelines or they're 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 they have to break and they can't reuse 'em. So we sell a lot. - How many would you sell in a year? - We sell of those, of all the different kinds, we sell about 8,000. - Woah. - Yeah. - NIST has been making these standard reference materials for over a century. - This is what our very first standard sample number one looks like. It is the real deal and it's gray powder, it's limestone. We are still making limestone number one for 110 years.
And it is still so popular that we sell 40 to 50 units a year of this. - Huh. - Isn't that wild? Very few companies are in existence that are still selling some of their original products and we do. - Most of the SRMs we've discussed so far are used for calibration. But there's another class of SRMs used for validation. This means they're used directly in industry tests to ensure consistency. An example is cigarettes. - Evidently, smoking in bed was a real issue. You know, people were like catching on fire. And so there was a lot of regulation as to how materials in your mattress or in your sheets or your bed clothes should react to a combustible source.
And we produced some standard cigarettes that, essentially, along with the ASTM tests, would help a manufacturer determine how flammable their furniture was or their bed clothes or their mattress. - And for those tests to be consistent, the fires must be started with a standardized NIST cigarette. (siren blaring) Fires started by smoking materials are the leading cause of death by fire in the home in the US. - Products like this, but also with the regulations that were in place and just the educational campaigns that went on have saved many, many lives. - But they also have standards for things you would never expect, like a standard bullet. - When a bullet is fired through a gun, you know, the rifling in the barrel imparts marks to the bullet. - Forensic labs then have to measure these grooves to match the bullet from the crime scene to others fired by the suspected weapon.
But how do you know they are accurately measuring the grooves? - So this has standard marks on it. They replicated a bullet. Putting, I believe, essentially, nano-indentations on it. So very, very fine marks and mapped it on this bullet. They weren't fired through a gun, they were manufactured. - So, to validate their equipment, forensic labs can run the standard bullet at the same time as a bullet from a crime scene, so they know their measurements are accurate. The goal of every standard is to quantify something about the world, something important that's usually pretty hard to measure, (vacuuming noise) like house dust. - In the early nineties, we worked with maid services and we got vacuum bags.
We went to hotels, went to motels, took all the vacuum bags that we got from all these hotels and houses and everything, mixed it together in a big pot, so it's fully mixed, so every little jar has the same number of chemicals, has the same amount of material in it. And then we measured everything in there. And the reason why I find dust is interesting is 'cause dust is, from an environmental point of view, is a really good way to tell what you and I and our house are being exposed to. - Identifying dangerous contaminants is a big part of what these standard reference materials are for, which is why they have several types of lead paint or water from a glacier in Greenland. - These are so rare that we have to limit distribution of one unit per customer per three years. - Whoa.
Or dirt From New Jersey and Montana. - We have a lot of soil samples. They had the permission to go into, essentially, a contaminated industrial site in Bozeman, Montana and collect a bunch of rocks, you know, five gallon pail and bring 'em back and crunch 'em up. And so these are certified, again, for things like toxic elements. - Now the ultimate way to measure what contaminants we're exposed to is by what comes out of us. Which is why NIST sells domestic sludge. This is a record of what has come out of our bodies and down our sewers.
Researchers can examine it for traces of toxins or heavy metals. Contaminants that many of us may be exposed to without knowing. It's really about environmental monitoring. And next year they're coming out with an actual human
poopproduct. - It's been in the news quite a bit as, 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 hugely important to your health, your mental attitude, just all sorts of things. Fecal matter is an incredibly difficult matrix to measure and extract all the different components out of.
And what this material will do is support measurements of the metabolites. And it'll be distributed as a vial of powder, essentially. - Do you know how much they got? - A crap load. (both laugh) - As our knowledge of the world evolves, so too do the standard reference materials stored in this warehouse. NIST is preparing to launch its first living standard reference materia next year. The living cells will be hamster ovary cells that can produce monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies now account for five of the 10 top selling drugs and over 75 billion dollars in annual sales worldwide.
When monkey pox started spreading earlier this year, one issue 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 of the monkey pox DNA in just 30 days. This warehouse is a very strange place to walk around. So many disparate pieces of our world carefully characterized, labeled, and packaged up. It's a reminder that behind the scenes, invisible to most of us, there are a group of people working tirelessly to ensure that things are what we think they are. When we eat peanut butter on toast, we can be sure the peanut butter contains what the label says.
When your blood test comes back with a cholesterol reading, you know it was calibrated with a standard. And when you walk into a steel-framed building, you know the steel has the appropriate structural and mechanical properties to hold up that structure. Our world works because, unbeknownst to most of us, there is a small army of people diligently checking that what is out there aligns with the standards. Even our