Using Urine: 10 Surprising Purposes for Pee
We all urinate. Fact. I’m not even going to bother citing that reference. Collectively, humans produce 10 billion litres of urine every day. Is that a lot of waste in need of disposal or is it a valuable commodity that we a literally “pissing” away?
Using urine was commonplace through so much of human history. And whilst, today, we may think of it as a waste product, it contains some very useful ingredients. Urine is 95% water and 5% salts including urea, nitrogen and phosphorus, all of which can have some very practical uses:
1. Medicinal Urine
The therapeutic examples of urine are almost endless. From the Bible’s Book of Proverbs to Yogic-texts advocating sivambu, the drinking of your own – and other peoples – urine has been common practice for centuries. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and physician born 23AD, wrote extensively on the subject. Pliny incorporated using urine into a cure for all manner of ailments:
- For joint pain, bathe in the urine of someone who has lived on a cabbage diet.
- For wrinkles, to the abdomen apply a paste made of saltpetre (see also Gunpowder below) and leaves steeped in the urine of a pre-adolescent child.
- Plagued by a high-sexual desire? Drink a man’s urine in which a lizard has been drowned. The urine of a eunuch also has the same anti-aphrodisiac effect.
Having to drink anyone’s urine would have a powerful effect on my libido.
Over the centuries, urine has been recommended to wash battlefield wounds, treat infected ulcers, burns, itching eyelids, ‘extreme sourness of the throat’, plus also insect bites and stings and ‘affections of the anus’. It all paints a pitiful picture of countless humans regularly dousing themselves in urine in a desperate bid to fight inflictions and infections. Sadly, there is no real modern scientific evidence that urine has all these benefits. It’s more likely that washing with urine, whilst not completely sterile as once believed, was still cleaner than the water available at the time.
2. Textile Dyes & Leather Making
So vital in the process of leather making, the ancient Romans applied a tax on collecting urine. The ‘liquid gold’ was transported from public restrooms and cesspits to the town’s tanners. The ammonia from the urea breaks down any fat or flesh remaining on the animal hide making it easier to scrape off. It also softens the leather that makes it easier to work and craft into clothing, footwear or saddles etc. Woollen textiles, such as the world-famous Scottish Tweed, would be washed in urine – yes, washed. The urine would both cleanse and also soften the woollen fibres.
Urine, sometimes very stale urine, would be used in dyeing fabrics. The ammonia acts as the “mordant” which both brightens the colour and makes the dye water-fast or “fixed”. And the staler the urine, the more ammonia it contained and the brighter the colour would be. Urine was widely used until the 19th Century when ammonia became available as a by-product of the coal-tar industry.
3. Soaps & Cleansers
Much like washing woollen textiles, the ammonia in urine acts as a detergent. Ammonia – or ammonium hydroxide as it exists when in solution with water – reacts with oils or fats, to form a soap. And this is why using urine as a detergent is a good idea. Icelandic women took it one step further as a shampoo: it was common practice to soak their hair in cow’s urine to make it clean and shiny.
Lye soap is made from a variety of alkaline substances including urine. “Chamber Lye” was the overnight wee-wee collected from chamber pots in well-to-do households in the 17th Century. Recycled as laundry detergent, it was used as a stain remover or as a pre-wash. Hannah Woolley advised in her 1685 household management guide The Compleat Servant-Maid to “lay it all night in urine… rub all the spots… then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again” to remove ink from linen.
4. Using Urine for Science!
Sixty buckets of urine were used in the discovery of phosphorus. German alchemist, Hennig Brand was actually in pursuit of the elusive Philosopher’s Stone – the ability to transmute ordinary metals into gold – when he instead discovered phosphorus via distillation of the urine. Conversely, urea was the first organic substance created from inorganic starting materials. German chemist Friedrich Wöhler’s experiment in 1826, disproved a leading theory that living organisms were constructed of entirely different substances to inanimate, inorganic objects. So using urine kind of led to the creation of the discipline of organic chemistry.
During World War I, troops were issued with cotton pads to soak in urine and wrap around their faces in an attempt to counter German gas attacks. Some soldiers also used handkerchiefs or socks. The ammonia from the urine would react with chlorine gas to form dichloro urea and neutralise its effects. Solutions of bicarbonate of soda were also options. However, it was difficult to fight like this and it wasn’t always effective. So, thankfully, the issuing of first gas masks in 1915 was a more effective countermeasure to the gas attacks.
5. Skin Care
Some of the more extreme medicinal suggestions for urine are probably complete hokum, however, remedies pertaining to using urine on the skin are effective. “Strong vinegar, milk and the urine of a boy” was a facewash as advised by the Elizabethan surgeon William Bullein. One’s own urine was “very good to wash the face withal, to make it fair” according to a women’s publication from 1675. And everyone’s favourite urine-advocate, Pliny, suggested pee mixed with ash as a topical treatment for nappy rash.
All this advice is accurate as urea is actually a component in our skins. It is present in the cell structure and in the natural moisturising factor (NMF) that regulates the moisture levels on the surface of our skin. Dry skin and eczema can see a reduction in the urea present by as much as 50% to 80% when compared to hydrated skin.
6. Oral Hygiene & Teeth Whitener
When used as a mouthwash, the ammonia in urine may help keep your mouth clean and whiten your teeth at the same time. For the Romans, the premium pee was Portuguese and bottles of their pee were sold to well to do citizens. In fact, urine was an active component in toothpaste and mouthwashes until the 1700s.
If your oral hygiene regime has failed you, how about being able to regrow your teeth – from urine? Researchers from Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health in China used stem-cells extracted from human urine to grow teeth-like structures in mice. The process for extracting the necessary pluripotent stem cells is easier using urine instead of the existing bone marrow techniques. The experiment had varying success with only a third of mice developing the structures and only a few of those had hardness comparable to human teeth.
The ingredients for gunpowder is sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. The first two are relatively easy to come by but potassium nitrate was not synthesised on an industrial scale until early in the 20th Century. So instead gunpowder makers used, you guessed it, pee.
Referred to as saltpetre, potassium nitrate is created from nitrogen-rich urine and other organic materials. Instructions for the Manufacture of Saltpetre published in 1862 by Joseph LeConte described the use of Nitre-beds. Onto these beds of rammed-clay floors, a mixture of “…thoroughly rotted manure of the richest kind…” ashes, leaves and twigs would be “lightly” deposited. The resulting heaps would be fifteen feet long and up to seven feet high. The heap would be fed weekly with “…the richest kinds of liquid manure, such as urine, dung-water, water of privies, cesspools, drains etc.” After several months, the ripening heap would produce the nitre in the form of a “…whitish efflorescence, detectable by the taste.” Yuck. Well, at least they weren’t drinking the stuff anymore.
8. Drinking Water
As it is 95% water it isn’t surprising that we consider using urine as a potential as a drinking water. NASA has been doing it for years aboard its spacecraft. Plus survival enthusiasts are ready to drink their own wee (given the appropriate conditions, of course). Water-purification tablets are an option but would do little to remove the urea and other salts your body has already successfully dealt with. So a solar still is probably the most favourable method. The purified water forms as condensation whilst the salts revert to their solid form as the water evaporates away.
Water not strong enough for you? Sugar-rich urine of elderly diabetics was used to make whisky. As part of an exhibition to highlight the condition, diabetes sufferer and biomedical researcher James Gilpin used the urine from several volunteers including his own grandmother. Just like drinking water, the urine was first purified. The extracted sugar molecules are added to the grain mash to accelerate the alcoholic fermentation process. The resulting single-malts were bottled along with the name and age of the urine donor.
The concept of using animal waste products as fertilizer is not new. For centuries, nay, aeons farmers have put back into the soil what their animals and crops have taken from it. The three main macronutrients in fertilizers are also present in urine: nitrogen and phosphorus and to a lesser extent, potassium.
So it’s no surprise that the concept of using human-wee “to close the nutrient cycle” is gaining ground. Whilst urine makes up only 1% of the domestic waste processed at water treatment plants, it contributes 80% of the nitrogen and 55% of the phosphorus extracted from the water. The water treatment plants remove these elements as they are contaminants that cause algal blooms in rivers. Instead, however, they have the potential as a fertilizer. This neat cycle would help prevent river contamination, reduce the production of synthetic fertilizers and help grow our food. Interested in trying it for yourself? There are plenty of bogs, I mean, blogs out there ready to point you in the right direction for using urine from your personal source.
10. Urine in the Future
A Potential Renewable Energy Source
Nigerian schoolgirls devised a way of using the hydrogen extracted from one-litre of urine to run a generator for six hours. A team from Bristol Robotics Laboratory created the world’s first microbial fuel cell (which feasts on urine). The by-product electricity was enough to power a cell phone. However, using urine to solve our energy crisis isn’t going to be easy-peesy. Any plans to harness it would also require massive changes to infrastructure and sanitation to redirect the urine to power stations instead of water-treatment plants.
Urine in space
Perhaps the ultimate statement on exploiting urine is repurposing it during deep space missions. Researchers have devised a way to utilise astronaut wee for creating polymers required for 3D-printing. Blends of urine and a particular strain of yeast produces a sort of plastic for transforming into the spare parts and tools required to support the mission. Most things about deep space missions are theoretical. But methods of crew self-sufficiency are necessary. The same yeast-urine combo also yielded omega-3 fatty acids identical to those in nutritional supplements. This offers a potential source for medicines, vitamins and other perishable goods.
As our population gets bigger and the available resources of our planet get smaller, we need to get smarter in order to address the issues we face. Whilst the “Soylent Green” dystopian future may seem far-fetched, candid approaches to reusing our own waste products may yet be a crucial part of our future.