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COVID-19

Soap saves countless lives every year. Here’s how it was invented

Andie Corban May 25, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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More soap use can save lives, the World Health Organization says. Mike Coppola/Getty Images
COVID-19

Soap saves countless lives every year. Here’s how it was invented

Andie Corban May 25, 2020
More soap use can save lives, the World Health Organization says. Mike Coppola/Getty Images
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The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of proper hand washing, and the market for hand soap and sanitizer is growing 262%, according to Research and Markets.

No medical product has saved more human life than soap, and yet, the inventor of soap likely had no idea about its life-saving potential, according to Cody Cassidy, author of the new book “Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History.

Soap was created 4,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.

“The first evidence that soap was made comes up in relation to wool-making, which was the primary export of these cities in ancient Mesopotamia,” Cassidy said. “Thousands of people were involved in plucking sheep and weaving the wool, and most of the weavers were women.”

Cassidy calls soap’s inventor Nini, after the Sumerian goddess of medicine, Ninisina.

“Nini worked in a textile-manufacturing plant processing wool, and she made soap as a way to remove the lanolin from the wool, which allowed them to dye it,” Cassidy said. At the time, people used her creation to clean wool and items like plates. But it wasn’t used to clean people, Cassidy said, and certainly not hands.

Because the dangerous bacterias and viruses that soap destroys are invisible, Nini had no idea what she had invented.

“Soap might seem very simple, but it might represent the greatest medical discovery ever,” Cassidy said. “The number of lives it’s saved is uncountable, and the [World Health Organization] says increased soap use could save more than a million lives per year today.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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