How I De-bug my Rugs

My method for removing dust and invisible pests from floors and rugs:

  1. Obtain normal cooking/table salt.
  2. Pour salt into mortar (of mortar and pestle), add one drop of bergamot essential oil and grind salt into a fine powder.  Keep away from skin.  Make sure there is enough salt to cover all rugs.
  3. Sprinkle powdered, scented salt onto rugs.*  Let sit for at least a few hours but preferably for a few days.
  4. Sweep up resulting salt-dust patches.  Breathe easier.

*If using essential oils, make sure pets, especially cats, are not in the vicinity.   To avoid inhaling the powder, fill a salt shaker and sprinkle close to the floor.

saltrug

I haven’t confirmed (with a microscope and experience) that this method is effective in getting rid of dust mites after an infestation.  A real infestation would require more work, like laundering, steam cleaning and fumigating.  I use this method instead of my previous washing soda/baking soda method to get a more thorough floor and rug cleaning, so it is a (fun) weekly routine that I follow to prevent an infestation and the sickness that comes with one.  In the summer, the hot and humid weather can encourage an infestation, and in the winter, the heating, darkness and reduced air circulation also favor dust mite growth.

I got the main idea for this procedure from a patent for killing dust mites with various salts (US5271947 A).  I’m not sure that table salt (sodium chloride) alone is a powerful acaracide (mite killer), but I believe that it is very effective when powdered and mixed with bergamot oil.

Sodium chloride is a well-known dessicant, so it could dry out the mites.  Grinding the salt into a powder makes it more effective, because the newly exposed surfaces can absorb more moisture from the air, cloths and insects.  The powder can also travel deeper into rugs than regular salt crystals from the box.  The real danger of dust mites are the chronic allergic reactions that can occur in response to their feces and dead body parts.  The salt can help grab these allergens (through electrostatic interactions), so that the allergens can be swept up along with the salt.

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) oil is a somewhat well-known antibacterial, fungicidal and insecticidal agent.  It contains furocoumarins, in particular bergamottin and bergaptenGrapefruit also has these compounds and effects, and the ‘grapefruit juice effect‘ (interaction with many medications) is due to certain furocoumarins.  The furocoumarins are also toxic to insects and mammals that come into contact with them and are exposed to sunlight (phototoxic).  Raw bergamot/grapefruit oil should not be applied to the skin (without proper medical instruction).

I love the calming, other-worldly smell of bergamot from the salt (also in Earl Grey tea) and haven’t had any reaction after walking on the scented salt barefoot, but I am still cautious with the concentrated chemicals.  I only use one drop each time and don’t go out in the sun right away.  The salt is used to absorb/release, dilute and disperse the essential oil throughout the area.

My favorite chemistry gardening hacks

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Veggie growing inspiring calendar, hand-drawn and designed by Long Island organic farmer Courtney Pure (https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheCoopDesignShoppe). Print-out cheerfully colored, to work in my mostly white kitchen, by me.

It’s not too late to start working in the garden if you live in a temperate climate region.  In addition to growing herbs and fast-growing vegetables, you can start planning for an Autumn/early Winter harvest.  Here are some chemistry-based tricks to boost your confidence and your yield.

Soak seeds in tea or vinegar to promote quick sprouting.  Water awakens the dormant plant inside the seed, but it needs to permeate the protective seed coat, which is mainly composed of cellulose, to get there.  You can weaken the seed coat by puncturing it, but since you could damage the insides, I prefer soaking seeds in leftover tea or in vinegar overnight.  The acid gently breaks up the tight-knit, rigid seed coat structure via acid hydrolysis. For peas, beans and similar ‘seeds’, the protective pod has already been removed and the pea has been preserved by dehydration, so to become active again, the pea only needs to be rehydrated by soaking in water.  If conditions are good, you can get fresh peas pods from planting peas in 2 months.

Dip cuttings in cinnamon to promote rooting.  Salicylates promote rooting, and natural sources of salicylates can be used as natural rooting hormones [Int. J. Advanced Biological and Biomedical Research, Volume 2, Issue 6, 2014: 1883-1886].  If you have a salicylate intolerance/low tolerance, you already know these sources.  This post on rooting hormones for cuttings from PreparednessMama lists 6 of them: yourself, apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, honey, aspirin and willow extract.  I’ve had success dipping cuttings (like rose stems) or garlic cloves in cinnamon and sticking them in wet sand.

Ferment weeds to make a cheap, organic fertilizer.  While you could make a fertilizer from compost tea (taking a clump of composted material from your compost heap and adding water), if you don’t have good composted material at the moment, or if you want a strong, easily absorbed fertilizer, you can take the bounty from intense weeding and ferment it with water in a polypropylene or glass container for a few days or until bubbles stop forming.  Strain the liquid into a watering can and apply near roots.  Fermentation (digestion by microbes) frees nutrients, like potassium and magnesium ions, from the plant material.  This also occurs in soil at a slower rate.  Fermented stinging nettles make a rich fertilizer.

Create copper barriers to keep out snails and slugs.  There is some controversy over whether this works.  However, following the reasoning in this wiki and empirical evidence from this science fair project, I would say that copper barriers do work, but, contrary to the advice given by many popular gardening bloggers, the copper needs to be partially oxidized.  A thick copper band or woven fence allows for regions of elemental copper (copper(0) electrode; anode) and regions of cuprous oxide (copper(I) oxide electrode; cathode).   The electrolyte-rich fluid from the snail/slug completes the circuit (yikes!), but the current is low, so the snail is not killed.  I have copper tape around raised beds, but I have note seen snails/slugs interacting with it.  While the copper barrier is not a foolproof system, I still think that it is better than introducing snail poisons, like copper sulfate, into the garden.  Once, I found a perfectly intact dead mouse in the garden (part of country life), and I believe that he was poisoned after eating a poisoned snail.  On this topic, to naturally reduce the snail population, attract birds and rodents to your garden, but don’t put down poison.

Plant specifically colored flowers to attract bees.  I’ve seen bees on all colors of flowers, but their favorites seem to be blue and yellow, and they aren’t attracted to frilly red flowers.  Unlike us, bees interpret some ultraviolet wavelengths as color.  This is how bees see certain yellow flowers:  hidden patterns.

Practice good companion planting to reduce the number of pests.  Companion planting is simply planting plants closely together that help each other out, often by repelling pests (for example, releasing chemicals into the air) or by creating a better soil environment (for example, attracting beneficial nitrogen-fixing microbes).  A very nice thing is companion planting guides, like this one in Mother Earth News, created from many observations by many people over many years, so you don’t need to know the biochemical basis (only now being studied in many cases) to use this valuable resource.  I especially like how the strong scent of my catmint (Nepeta × faasenii) can repel most pests, including aphids, mosquitoes, ticks and mites.  It is also very drought tolerant and low maintenance, and the bees love the numerous tiny purple flowers.

How to make radishes cry

Radishes are a bounty of nutrients  and health-supporting compounds (vitamin C in red skin, selenium, folic acid, iron, phosphorus), and the stereotypical red variety requires very little space, time and effort to grow and harvest.  It is a shame that, in NY at least, they are often passed over in the supermarket.  The main reason that I did not choose radishes when I was less food-conscious is that I found their sharpness overwhelming.

Isothiocyanates are responsible for the acridness of radishes, mustard plants, wasabi and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli.  They are plant defense compounds, and since they can also harm the plant, they are only created when the plant’s cells are damaged.  The isothiocyanate precursor, which is allyl glucosinolate (aka mustard oil glycoside) in radishes, and the catalyst for its hydrolysis to the isothiocyanate, myrosinase, are stored in separate but adjacent cells [Periodicum biologorum; Vol.110 No.4 01/2008].  When the cells are damaged via bites or cuts into tissue, the precursor and myrosinase combine and react.

While isothiocyanates are beneficial in disrupting bacterial, fungal and cancer cells {This link leads to a website provided by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Karlium is not affiliated or endorsed by the Linus Pauling Institute or Oregon State University.} in the body, a concentrated amount can also damage body cells.  In addition, the allyl isothiocyanate (aka sinigrin, mustard oil component) produced by radishes is volatile, so the compound released after biting into a radish can react with your eyes and make you cry, even if the pain in your mouth doesn’t.

One way of reducing the sharpness of radishes is to make it ‘cry’ (before it makes you cry).  I haven’t seen this being done in NY, but it seems to be common practice in Germany, particularly Bavaria (Bayern), where people eat radishes very often.

How to make radishes cry:

  1. Slice radishes into disks.
  2. Mix with table salt.  Let sit for 10 mins.
  3. Drain resulting liquid produced from radishes.
  4. Eat without anxiety.

Radishes

This is my new favorite way of preparing radishes.  It is also a good way of preserving  most of the beneficial compounds, since cooking degrades many vitamins and antioxidants.

The biophysochemical explanation for the milder flavor of a ‘weinender Rettich‘ (weeping radish) is that the salt draws out the water stored in the vacuoles of the plant cells (plasmolysis).  Since a glucosinolate is an anion stored in vacuoles, it is likely pulled out of the cells along with the water (I haven’t confirmed this).

Bonus tip:  The allyl thiocyanate in radishes may help reduce bad breath.

Disclaimer:  This post and blog fall under the heading ‘Personal Experiences’ and is meant to interest, educate and inspire.  All information and instruction is given without the intent to harm or control the reader in any way.

 

 

Dustbusting without a vacuum cleaner

I admit that I have never vacuumed this apartment.  To me, dragging a heavy vacuum cleaner across the delicate ceramic tiles is not a good idea and managing the cord and hose settings is exhausting.  Therefore, I developed a simple method for cleaning the floor and carpets using a household ‘dust-grabbing’ powder and a broom:

  1. Sprinkle washing soda* (sodium carbonate) or baking soda* (sodium bicarbonate) over the carpets and into the corners of the room.
  2. Sweep the powder over all flooring, out of all rugs and into a neat dust-powder pile to be disposed of.

[Update: I now simply spray a washing soda and water solution (with a drop of lavender oil) onto the rugs to dampen them, brush them with the broom using a circular motion and then sweep everything.  This method uses a smaller amount of chemicals, is easier and more effective and doesn’t leave visible residue.]

*NFPA Rating: Health-1, Flammability-0, Instability-0

SodaSweep
Using washing soda and a broom instead of a vacuum cleaner to clean floor and rug

Notes:

I believe that this method is as good as using a standard vacuum cleaner (although I haven’t dragged out the vacuum to confirm it), and it requires less time/energy, no electricity and produces no noise (pets will be pleased).  Also, as you can/will see, the dust bunnies clump together nicely instead of fleeing from the broom.

The ‘dust-grabbing’ ability of the carbonate powder can simply be attributed to the many strong intermolecular interactions that it can form with dust particles without reacting with them (i.g. dipole-dipole, ion-dipole and hydrogen bonding interactions), similar interactions to the ones which created the accumulated dust in the first place.

Dust can be fine particles of anything, but the biggest concern are dead skin cells in the form of flakes or hairs, which attract dust mites.  Salt crystals in fine powder form, ‘salt’ being any ionic pair, including sodium chloride and sodium carbonate, can be used to kill dust mites.  Chloride salts cause corrosion of metals, including stainless steel, so I don’t use sodium chloride (table salt).

For your safety, do not inhale large amounts of any powder or handle them with your bare hands.  Use a shaker and sprinkle close to the floor, or dissolve the carbonate salt in water to use in a spray bottle.

Disclaimer:  This post and blog fall under the heading ‘Personal Experiences’ and is meant to interest, educate and inspire.  All information and instruction is given without the intent to harm or control the reader in any way.

 

Proposal: Chalk grafiti on paved roads would help prevent black ice

Considering the current high-maintenance and inconvenient ice management practices (or lack thereof) on roadways and driveways, it would be nice to have an easy, ecological and fun (?) way of preventing icing of roadways.

This is an easy experiment:

  1. Get sidewalk chalk.  To be most environmentally responsible, it should be mostly calcium carbonate (limestone) or calcium sulfate (plaster of paris, gypsum) and natural dyes.  Calcium carbonate is preferred since calcium sulfate is a minor irritant.  Both are beneficial for natural water sources when they eventually run off.  Crayola currently makes calcium carbonate anti-dust white chalk but their sidewalk chalk is sulfate based, and it is not clear what dyes they use (other than not the allergen Red #40).
  2. You and/or the kids cover the driveway with chalk drawings.
  3. Let it snow (let it snow, let it snow)!
  4. Shovel if you need to.  Sprinkle ground up chalk onto whatever is removed.

Why you shouldn’t get black ice:

a)  Black ice is generally caused by melted snow that seeps into holes in pavement and refreezes to form a smooth transparent layer of water molecules that is difficult to remove without remelting.

b)  The chalk is used to fill in gaps in the driveway before the snow gets a chance.  Unlike most deicers, it is not very soluble in water and should not melt the snow for the most part.  It may, however, react with acidic water to form a soluble salt and become a typical freezing point depressor (ice melter).  In either case, ice/snow should slide right off of the chalk-covered pavement/snow interface, making shoveling easier.

c)  I did an experiment with chalk, ice and a rough surface:

Notes:

From just a glance at the photos, you can see that the plain ice sample is much more transparent than the chalk-ice sample.  It is very smooth, slippery and compact, whereas the chalk-ice is rough, crystalline and brittle.  While the central part of the plain ice is white due to air bubbles, the high transparency of the main part and slipperiness of the whole qualify it as black ice.  In addition, the plain ice melts much more slowly than the chalk-ice.  After 2 hrs on the counter, the chalk-ice is almost completely melted, reforming a chalk-water suspension, while the plain ice is only a little melted.  This is due to the larger surface area to volume ratio of the crystalline chalk-ice as well as to the freezing point depression phenomenon.

Besides chalk and eggshells, antacids for heartburn also contain calcium carbonate.

Calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate are also better than sand for your flooring, since the quartz in sand is 10 or more times harder than these chalk minerals.

Disclaimer:  This post and blog fall under the heading ‘Personal Experiences’ and is meant to interest, educate and inspire.  All information and instruction is given without the intent to harm or control the reader in any way.

 

 

DIY Dryer Balls

I was suckered into buying one of those funny-looking plastic laundry balls with the rounded spikes.  Lowering drying time?  Saving energy?  Not only did they not save time/energy, but they made such a racket in the dryer that I feared that they were wearing-and-tearing away at my clothes.

Thanks to pinners on Pinterest, I happened upon a much better alternative to store-bought dryer balls, and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling every time I use them, because I crafted them with my own hands (and they get warm and fuzzy).

DryerBalls
Wool Dryer Balls in Vinegar

From a chemistry point of view, wool felted dryer balls are ingenious.  Wool, as you probably know, is full of static charges, so it attracts the surfactant and metal ions to it and away from your clothes.  After the water molecules are freed from strong ionic interactions, they can leave the solution more easily and water on clothing can evaporate faster.

My wool dryer balls are extremely gentle on clothes, and the clothes are left super-soft, fresh-smelling and practically lint-free.  Although they probably work well on their own, I keep them soaked in a vinegar solution with bergamot essential oil (both good for destroying mold).