Stupid Stuff: TMSIDK Episode 12

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Aasif Mandvi

Comedian Aasif Mandvi has a head full of Stupid Stuff. (Photo: Lucy Sutton)

During the Spanish-American War and late 1800s, more soldiers died from food poisoning than from enemy bullets. Their food wasn’t just spoiled, it was filled with dangerous preservatives like borax and formaldehyde. In fact, the government didn’t regulate food additives at all until a guy named Harvey Washington Wiley came along. He was the head of the government’s Bureau of Chemistry and to study the chemicals added to food, he created a division that was later called the Poison Squad.

The squad of 12 male civil servants took all their meals in the Department of Agriculture’s basement kitchen. Every day, Wiley added more chemicals to their food, until they developed crippling nausea, headaches, weight loss or otherwise couldn’t function. When they tested formaldehyde, most of the squad ended up sick in bed.

In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which regulated food safety and eliminated the need for the Poison Squad. Ultimately, this led to the creation of the FDA, which still regulates the food industry, and ensures that your milk doesn’t come with a side order of formaldehyde.

This episode of Tell Me Something I Don’t Know is all about “Stupid Stuff” — things that seem stupid but aren’t and things don’t but are. Our panelists are:

James Altucher, author and host of the podcast the James Altucher Show, who is an honorary Kentucky colonel.

Miki Agrawal, entrepreneur and founder of Thinx, who built her own digital slot machine in ninth grade…sort of.

Aasif Mandvi, comedian and author of No Man’s Land, who has a knack for selling sweaters in Florida.

Our real-time fact-checker is Sean Rameswaram, producer for Radiolab’s Supreme Court spinoff, More Perfect, who definitely knows how slides work.