Living with water contaminated with microbes

Unfortunately, for about a week now and still counting, the municipal water for most of the state of Hessen has been deemed contaminated with E. coli [Hessenschau].  The cause is unknown, but there was an outbreak of pathogenic E. coli in 2011 [Eurosurveillance].  To combat this problem, the state is further contaminating the water with chlorine bleach.

Fortunately, this situation forced me to think about when and how much water we use carelessly or unnecessarily.  It also inspired me to think of solutions for people who have similar water contamination problems, temporarily or chronically.

My advice for action after finding out that your water is contaminated with dangerous microbes:

  1. Don’t panic!  The body has many lines of defense, including the skin, mucous-lined airways, stomach acid, pancreatic and bile secretions and inflammatory responses, against pathogenic bacteria, yeasts and viruses [Merck Manual].  Support your body with healthy thoughts and a sufficient amount of nutrients.
  2. Get clean drinking water.  Germany has an abundance of natural springs, so bottled spring water is very cheap (literally cheaper than dirt), possibly more so than tap water, and all bottled water is highly regulated [EFBW].  If you have use for clean tap water, it needs to be freshly sanitized through boiling at a rolling boil for 1 to 3 minutes, depending on elevation/boiling point, to kill bacteria [CDC].  I’ve been using tap water boiled in an electric kettle to make tea, cook grains (for couscous – just add boiling water), blanche vegetables and (after cooling) water houseplants.  Distilled water is also an option but may not be necessary for a microbial contamination.  Caution:  Drinking too much DW too fast can cause bodily distress and even death [How Stuff Works].
  3. Use coldest setting of tap water.  Since tap water can only reach up to 60 deg C (for skin safety and material protection), and since microbes only start to be killed at 70 deg C, using hot tap water to ‘sanitize’ is not justified.  Hot water can remove protective oils and denature structural and functional proteins in your skin, leaving you open to infection.  Hot water also causes pores in the skin to open.  Cold water is astringent, meaning it causes your pores to close.  You can feel this as your skin tightening.  This is good for preventing microbes and toxins from entering your body through your skin.
  4. Shower wisely.  Take a short, cold shower if needed.  Avoid getting water on cuts and body openings.  Consider a sponge bath.  I actually enjoy an oatmeal sponge bath and hair wash:  1)  Fill sock with oats and knot it.  2)  Soak it in warm sanitized water until the oats are softened.  3)  Rub over skin.  4)  Rinse hair with resulting oat-water (looks milky).  5)  Dry/Rub off residue with a towel and apply moisturizer.  This is very soothing for itchy skin.
  5. Use probiotics.  Your gut lining needs microbes, including non-pathogenic E. coli, to properly function.  Antibiotics, synthetic or natural, destroy microbes and open up real estate, which  should then be populated with beneficial microbes.  Good sources of probiotics are easy to make yourself, such as fermented fruit juice (ex: hard cider), kombucha, unpasteurized vinegar (super easy), sauerkraut and kefir (sour, not spoiled, milk).  You can also clean broken skin, fruits/vegetables and surfaces with strong vinegar.
  6. Go medieval on your food.  Wash your food down with mead, wine or (real) beer.  These are probiotic detoxifying digestive aids.  Load raw or difficult-to-sanitize foods (fish, meats, especially chicken) with antibiotic digestive aids, like citrus zest and herbs [learn about medieval herbs on gardeningknowhow].  Traditional Medicine, both Western and Eastern, focuses a lot more on increasing bile secretions and moving fluids through the body than Modern Medicine.  Stretching and exercise are also needed to keep the lymphatic (infection-fighting) system working properly.

My dried herbal First Aid kit: Stinging nettle leaves

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.

Stinging Nettles in local forest

It may seem strange to be healing with a plant that can hurt you, but the #1 dried herbal in my First Aid kit is stinging/burning nettle (Urtica dioica).  Stinging nettle tea is in my medicine cabinet and portable First Aid kit.  Even though the well-known weed grows everywhere, I use commercially made ready-to-go stinging nettle tea bags (which also contain fennel and blackberry leaves) wrapped in paper envelopes [Lord Nelson].  If you factor in the work involved in (carefully) collecting, drying, wrapping, labeling and packaging the raw herb, commercial tea bags are a good deal.  Commercial tea bags are also travel friendly, since they are less likely to attract suspicion than loose herbs.

I use stinging nettle tea for:

  • Cuts & Scrapes:  Moisten and press against wound (or let moisture from wound activate tea) as a compress.  Dried stinging nettle leaves are astringent/promote wound closing (due to tannins), antiseptic/prevent infection (tannins/phenols, organic acids, zinc ions) and promote skin healing (tannins, vitamins A, C & E, zinc ions).
  • Insect Bites:  Moisten and hold against bite.  For me, it was relieving while pressed against the skin, but the itch quickly came back after removing the ‘poultice‘.  Spraying a tincture of fresh nettle leaves in grain alcohol (vodka) or vinegar might be more effective, since ethanol and acetic acid extract both water-soluble (ex: vitamin C, ions) and water-insoluble (ex: vitamin A) compounds from herbs and helps them penetrate deeper into the skin, which is mainly water-impermeable.  This can also help relieve the pain and raised bumps due to stings from stinging nettle.
  • Nosebleeds:  Moisten and gently plug up nostril.  I sometimes have long-duration nosebleeds that need to be stopped before I lose a lot of blood.  I tried other teas (chamomile, pomegranate), but stinging nettle  was the most effective.  Since fruit and flower teas are also astringent, this difference is probably due to the high vitamin and mineral content of stinging nettles.  For external wound healing, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc ions are commonly applied, as well as the amino acid lysine, and these are all found in stinging nettle leaves (less vitamin C in dried leaves).  I also drink nettle tea to promote blood clotting (see below).
  • Excessive Blood Loss:  Drink tea from leaves steeped in (preferably) hot or carbonated water.  The tea has a very mild, uncharacteristic (green?) taste, and it is very diuretic.  Stinging nettles have a high vitamin K1 content.  Vitamin K1 (Phylloquinone, Koagulationsvitamin) is an essential vitamin found in leafy greens (chlorophyll) that is used by the body to create coagulation factors.  The leaves also have a considerable amount of iron (14% DV/100 g), so stinging nettle tea is used for blood building.  In fact, stinging nettles can and have been used as food, basically as a substitute for spinach, since they provide many nutrients.  For example, 100 grams can supply 90%–100% of the daily value of vitamin A and significant amounts of calcium, iron, and protein [Int. J. of Food Science, Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 857120].  Vitamin A works with iron to prevent anemia [Mayo Clinic].  *Warfarin (Coumadin(R)), dicoumarol (sweet clover) and related anticoagulants competitively inhibit vitamin K activity, so stinging nettle may interfere with these medications.  Other possible interactions of stinging nettle are those with blood pressure medications and water pills [University of Maryland Medical Center].

Since I try to use stinging nettle every day for detox and blood building, I also want to make my own dried leaves and infusions with fresh leaves for the greatest benefits (some vitamins are destroyed with excessive heating, drying, sunlight and time).  The stinging hairs are deactivated through drying, heating or soaking.

A very helpful resource on stinging nettle chemical composition and usage was provided in Dr. Christopher’s Legacy:  Stinging Nettle by K. Vance.

My favorite chemistry gardening hacks

Veggie growing inspiring calendar, hand-drawn and designed by Long Island organic farmer Courtney Pure ( 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 wash dishes with plants and water

High-saponin Plant Tea Foam Soap

Step 1:  Obtain foam soap dispenser.  To be thrifty, I bought some foaming soaps in cute PP or HDPE plastic dispensers made for kids from the local supermarket.  They came with soap solutions that did not contain sodium laureth-sulfate (or lauryl-sulfate or coco-sulfate) but instead micelle-forming betaines and glycosides (saponins), which is the direction that I wanted to go in.  However, they also contained undesirable ingredients, like strong fragrances and preservatives, so I was eager to use them up and have empty dispensers to refill.  The dispenser is important, because the dispenser encourages a super foaming effect (many small bubbles) that isn’t normally found with the water-saponin solution (which forms large bubbles that disappear quickly).  As far as I know, any diluted soap/detergent/surfactant works with a foaming soap dispenser.  Diluting your dish soap of choice and using a foam dispenser saves both soap and water (no guesswork of the soap to water ratio after filling the dispenser).

Step 2:  Make high-saponin plant tea.  By ‘tea’, I just mean dried plant parts steeped in water.  Use cold or warm water and let steep overnight.  Right now, I am using soap nuts and orange ginger green tea steeped together.  The soap nuts have a high saponin content.  I am growing soapwort to potentially replace the soap nuts and be more self-sufficient.  Green tea also contains saponins,  like many plants, but in a much lower concentration.  The orange peel and ginger provide an antibacterial boost and also provide a pleasant scent (I think that soap nuts have an unpleasant fruity scent).  Orange essential oil, from the peel, is also a good degreaser.  While appropriate essential oils could be added later to the final product, I recommend using only scented teas and dried herbs and fruit to avoid adding too much of the essential oil (important to protect skin).

Step 3:  Strain plant tea into empty soap dispenser.  Filter everything through a cloth or filter paper, so small particles do not clog the pump.  Fill the dispenser a quarter of the way and test the foaming ability.  If the solution is too dilute/has too much water, squeeze some concentrated soap from the soap nuts or dump the liquid out and brew a stronger saponin tea.  Afterwards, fill the dispenser, leaving a quarter of the volume for air.

Step 4:  Use foaming soap to wash dishes.  This soap looks like a regular dish detergent when foamed up, but the bubbles disintegrate more easily.  I use a nylon brush, because it works well and does not need to be replaced often, and I am generally pleased with the results.  The soap works well for glass and plastic and rinses off easily (saving water).  The only problem I’ve noticed is that it, ironically, leaves stains on stainless steel.  However, the steel still looks nice.  It is shiny with a rainbow sheen, and this is probably an improvement (filling in pits in steel), but if necessary, can be removed with a baking soda paste.  The pH is close to neutral, based on a red cabbage indicator, but can vary depending on the plants used.

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.


Eco-friendliness:  Soap nuts can be reused until they don’t produce bubbles anymore.  Compost the soap nuts and any tea used (with tea bag if biodegradable), but avoid putting saponins, soaps and oils near lakes and streams (harmful or deadly to fish).  Triterpenoid saponins, since they contain sugar-aglycone linkages, are easily degraded into the sugar and aglycone by acids, enzymes (via microbes) or high temperatures.

Personal Safety:  The soap is much gentler on my skin than most synthetic soaps, including the classic oil and lye synthesized bar soaps and excluding the potassium hydroxide synthesized liquid castile soaps (Dr. Bronner’s).  I used to have painfully dry, cracked skin on my palms, and after switching all the hand soaps to foaming soap nut and lavender oil soaps, my skin is much better and even heals cuts more quickly.  However, everyone’s skin is different, so make sure your skin agrees with all the plants used.  When I rubbed my eyes, they watered up, but returned to normal after some tearing and a few seconds.  Irritation seems to be the extent of the safety hazards.  Here is a helpful article on the uses of saponins, including its use as a pesticide and dermatitis remedy.

Food Safety:  Please use at your own discretion.  While I haven’t gotten sick from using this soap, I don’t drink it or leave it on dishes for a long time.  Many natural food plants contain saponins, including quinoa, yams, clovers, beans, legumes and grapes.  This does not mean that they are harmless but only that they are already in your diet.  This soap is extremely bitter, so it cannot (imaginably) be accidentally mistaken for a beverage.

Pots and Pans:  The burnt parts of pots and pans don’t come off easily with soap and water in general.  I don’t even ‘wash’ my pots & pans anymore.  They are heated while cooking enough to kill microbes.  In addition, microbial colonies form on wet surfaces, not dry oil surfaces (many fatty acids are actually antimicrobial).  I clean the pots and pans with a moistened homemade pot scrubber of a nylon stocking stuffed with jasmine green tea and double wrapped and tied.  Excess liquid is wiped with a paper towel or cloth until the pot shines again.

How to be less of a mosquito-magnet

I have confirmed from doing internet research (recommended articles) that what I suspected is true:  I am a mosquito magnet.

While I cannot or do not want to change these factors, I can make small choices to decrease the chance of getting mosquito bites.  Examples are:

  1. Avoiding skincare products that include lactic acid and urea (which are commonly used for ‘sensitive skin’).  These are metabolic waste compounds that are naturally found in sweat (and in urine).
  2. Using a skin-cleansing deodorant spray before going outside or after sweating.  I use a homemade fennel ethanol tincture.  Based on my knowledge and research, this helps in a few ways:
  3. Drinking non-carbonated drinks when outdoors.  Carbon dioxide is a mosquito-attractant.  Lemonade is a hydrating, electrolyte-replenishing, bug-repelling (if freshly squeezed or infused with certain herbs) refreshment.
  4. Burying my scent in those of mosquito-repelling plants.  [my post on mosquito-repelling bouquets]
  5. Suggestions are welcome!  I’m always looking for creative ways to make daily life easier.


Mosquito Repelling Bouquets

Do you often restrain yourself from buying ‘useless’ flower bouquets yet purchase citronella candles and other commercial mosquito repellents that don’t work very well?

A simple and satisfying solution is to create your own personalized mosquito repelling bouquet.  I mainly based my creations on the very helpful and readable research review published in Malaria Journal 2011 10(Suppl 1):S11.  I focused on aromatic flowers and stems/leaves from plants that could easily be grown at home, like scented geranium (Pelargonium), marigold (Tagetes), lemon balm (Melissa), mint (Mentha), lemongrass (Cymbopogon), thyme (Thymus), basil (Ocimum), and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus).

If you do not want to care for the whole or partial plants, the essential oils of most of these plants are widely available and can be used in diffusers.  Some nice combinations are lemon + basil, lemon + thyme and lemon + eucalyptus (I like lemon and mosquitoes don’t!).  I currently use rose geranium essential oil mixed with diluted Melissengeist (lemon balm ethanol extract with hints of other herbs).


I don’t recommend adding essential oils/plants to candles.  Diffusers have been shown to work better than candles against mosquitoes.  Burning may destroy the essential oil compounds, and the carbon dioxide produced may even attract mosquitoes.

Cut flowers are better than potted plants for repelling mosquitoes, because plants generally don’t release their essential oils much until they are damaged.

Coconut Oil Storage Tip

If you have the problem of coconut oil getting stuck to the spoon and not making it to the pan, try storing your coconut oil in the refrigerator or other cold place (10 °C/50 °F or below).  It becomes wax-like, so you can scrape off what you need, and it won’t stick to the spoon as much.

Coconut oil solid when stored cold