Urine!: Turns Out It’s REALLY Interesting

I was talking to some friends about Blood Meridian, a book by Cormac McCarthy which I consider to be one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I was talking about a scene in which the Judge makes gunpowder out of urine. When everyone was confused, I think I said “well yeah, that’s how gunpowder was invented”…then I double backed because I didn’t know if that was true.

I knew that the first chemical element discovered was phosphorous (in 1669 by H. Brand) and it was from a guy who was trying to make gold from his own urine. I then confused this with gunpowder because phosphorus can be ignited (match heads).

Gunpowder is, on the other hand, made from sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate.
Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, can be made from urine. A nitrogen source, it was used to moisten straw or other organic material, which was kept moist and allowed to rot for several months to over a year. The resulting salts were washed from the heap with water, which was evaporated to allow collection of crude saltpeter crystals, that were usually refined before being used in making gunpowder.

BUT…I don’t think the original invention of gunpowder used saltpeter from urine…more likely from manure.

Anyways, because of these two really interesting facts (first discovery of a chemical element; the fact that it can be used to make gunpowder), I looked up urine on wikipedia and got a whole bunch of other interesting facts:

Agriculture

Urine contains large quantities of nitrogen (mostly as urea), as well as significant quantities of dissolved phosphates and potassium, the main macronutrients required by plants. Diluted at least 8:1 with water it can be applied directly to soil as a fertilizer. Undiluted, it can chemically burn the roots of some plants, but it can be safely used as a source of complementary nitrogen in carbon rich compost. Urine typically contains 70% of the nitrogen and more than half the phosphorus and potassium found in urban waste water flows, while making up less than 1% of the overall volume. Thus source separation and on-site treatment has been studied in Sweden as a way to partially close the cycle of agricultural nutrient flows, to reduce the cost and energy intensivity of sewage treatment, and the ecological consequences such as eutrophication, resulting from an influx of nutrient rich effluent into aquatic or marine ecosystems. The fertilization effect of urine has been found to be comparable to that of commercial fertilizers with an equivalent NPK rating.

Cleaning

In pre-industrial use as a cleaning fluid due to its ammonia content.

Survival uses

Numerous survival instructors and guides, including the US Army Field Manual, advise against drinking urine for survival. These guides explain that drinking urine tends to worsen, rather than relieve dehydration due to the salts in it, and that urine should not be consumed in a survival situation, even when there is no other fluid available. In hot weather survival situations, where water is also hard to find, soaking cloth in urine (a shirt for example) and putting it on one’s head can help cool the body.

During World War I, the Germans experimented with numerous poisonous gases for use during war. After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was believed that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the chlorine. These pads were held over the face until the soldiers could escape from the poisonous fumes, although it is now known that chlorine gas reacts with urine to produce toxic fumes.

Tanning

Tanners soaked animal skins in urine to remove hair fibers—a necessary step in the preparation of leather.
Textiles

Urine has often been used as a mordant to help prepare textiles, especially wool, for dyeing. In Scotland, the process of “walking” (stretching) the tweed is preceded by soaking in urine.

and finally:

Ancient Romans used human urine to cleanse grease stains from their clothing, before acquiring soaps from the Germans during the first century AD. Urine that has been fermented for the purposes of cleaning is referred to as lant. The emperor Nero instituted a tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the urine industry. This tax was continued by Nero’s successor, Vespasian, to whom is attributed the Latin saying Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) – this is said to have been Vespasian’s reply to a complaint from his son about the disgusting nature of the tax. Vespasian’s name is still attached to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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2 Responses to Urine!: Turns Out It’s REALLY Interesting

  1. Martina says:

    Well, now I feel like I know more about the world. However, it didn’t mention using urine to neutralize a jellyfish sting. I have always wondered if this “fact” was true or not.

    • dontdontoperate says:

      hmmm, it seems to be more myth than fact:

      One study:
      Disarming the box-jellyfish. Nematocyst inhibition in Chironex fleckeri.
      Authors: HARTWICK, R.; CALLANAN, V.; WILLIAMSON, J.
      Journal: Medical Journal of Australia 1980 Vol. 1 No. 1 pp. 15-20
      “The severity of a box-jellyfish sting depends on the total number of nematocysts which discharge venom into the victim. Initially, only a modest fraction of the nematocysts discharge but the tentacles adhere and attempts to remove them often lead to further envenoming. Application of methylated spirits has been widely recommended to prevent nematocyst discharge. It is generally assumed that the dehydrating effect of alcohol prevents water from moving into the capsule, to raise its internal pressure and thus evert and extrude the nematocyst tubule. But confirmatory evidence is lacking and therefore the authors tested several substances for their ability to stimulate and inhibit nematocyst discharge.
      Tentacles were applied to the forearm skin of one or more of the authors before and after wetting of the tentacle with the test substance, and emergence of nematocyst tubes was observed by light and electron microscopy. Methylated spirits caused instantaneous and essentially complete discharge and it was thereafter used as an assay to determine the degree of discharge inhibition produced by prior exposure to other test substances. Weak solutions of acetic acid, as well as commercial vinegar, were found to inactivate the penetrating nematocysts rapidly and completely. The mechanism of this inactivation remains obscure. Most other substances such as formalin and sodium bicarbonate were ineffective; human urine, like alcohol, stimulated massive discharge after 1-2 minutes delay. Further research with other coelenterates is planned. H. Alistair Reid.”

      “Although it’s definitely out there as a folk remedy, urine on jellyfish stings can actually be harmful with some species,” said Michelle Gallant, SU wellness educator. “The most frequently recommended treatment is white vinegar.”

      “At best, urinating on a jellyfish sting will do nothing. Experiments indicate that in some jellyfish species, urine actually sets off the remaining stinging cells, making the sting even worse.

      The urine cure and other folk remedies miss the mark, anyway. The point of rinsing the wounded area is not to alleviate the pain. The venom’s already in you. Urinating on it will not help any more than it does to urinate on your thumb after you hit it with a hammer.

      The point of the rinse is to get rid of any remaining tentacles or other jellyfish tissue that might still harbor stinging cells, or nematocysts, which could still fire and make the sting worse. (These cells, which are all over jellyfish, contain a tiny poison dart that shoots out at a touch or because of a chemical reaction; thousands of them typically fire simultaneously.) For the aforementioned reason, urine is a terrible candidate for the job.

      Susan Scott, “Oceanwatch” columnist for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, has investigated jellyfish stings in the field (as well as in the lab) probably as much as anyone, having spent years visiting injured tourists and the like on Hawaii’s beaches. A registered nurse, she and husband Dr. Craig Thomas authored “All Stings Considered: First Aid and Medical Treatment of Hawai’i’s Marine Injuries.”

      In her column in 2001, Scott summed up years of study on a variety of sting “cures”: “Nothing worked.” In an e-mail to me, she summed it up another way: “Anything works.”

      This paradox goes to the heart of the urine myth. “Nothing worked” means that none of the main folk remedies—including urine, meat tenderizer and commercial sprays—did anything to stop the pain of a sting.

      On the other hand, “Anything works,” because the vast majority of jellyfish stings are not severe and their effects disappear within a few hours at most, no matter whether you urinate on yourself or simply do nothing.

      “Anything works for another reason”—mind over matter. “The placebo effect is a powerful treatment,” Scott said, referring to the common psychological phenomenon in which people who receive a useless treatment feel better simply because they think they have been medicated. In this case, believing you have been given an analgesic may well reduce your subjective experience of pain. (In addition, different people can have widely varying pain thresholds.)

      Folk remedies for jellyfish stings can be quite exotic; Scott mentioned mustard, and minor studies have been done on Coca-Cola. But the urine cure is exceptionally widespread, found on beaches from Vietnam to Belize. It is also applied (equally uselessly) to other marine wounds, like coral cuts and sea urchin spike punctures. How did the idea get started?

      Urine is an ancient folk medicine for a boggling variety of ills, and its main nitrous component, urea, does have some real medicinal properties (though not for jellyfish stings). Among many other things, it’s also a folk remedy for bee stings.

      Scott had a simple conjecture for its application to jellyfish: “We think this is because it’s usually the only substance readily handy during jellyfish stings.”

      The “anything/nothing works” warning aside, there are definitely things you should do to treat a jellyfish sting, and there are things you can do to prevent it from becoming worse. (The following information focuses on box jellies and Portuguese man-of-wars, which are the most dangerous jellyfish on bathing beaches; check with lifeguards at your beach for guidance on identifying local dangerous species.)

      In all cases, immediately scrape off any remaining tentacles or other visible jellyfish tissue with a glove or some kind of tool—never with bare hands.

      On box jellies, you can rinse the area with vinegar. Experiments have shown that vinegar chemically deactivates the nematocysts of box jellies, disabling any remaining cells from firing into your skin.

      On Portuguese man-of-war stings, do not use vinegar; experiments show that in its species, vinegar sets off the nematocysts. Instead, just rinse the area with seawater. (Fresh water is probably OK, too, though some doctors worry it can also set off nematocysts by osmosis.)

      Once the area is clear of any more nematocysts, you can attempt to deal with the pain. Gritting your teeth works. Scott said hot or cold packs, or hot baths, are the only treatments she’s seen work for anybody.

      If the pain is severe and lasting, or there are any other symptoms such as sweating or faintness, go to an emergency room immediately. Some jellyfish are certainly capable of killing humans, and some people are highly allergic to minor stings.

      If you touched the area with your hands before rinsing, make sure you wash up before touching yourself anywhere else, especially your eyes. An eyeful of nematocysts is unpleasant indeed.”

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