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Practical Survival Chemistry – Part 1, by 3AD Scout

I have been involved in survival and preparedness since I was a teenager. I have done a lot, seen a lot, and heard a lot about preparedness from many sources. This has come from hands-on practice, reading books and magazines, watching YouTube, and talking with others of like mind. One area of survival or preparedness for TEOTWAWKI that doesn’t get discussed a lot is chemistry. I am by no means a chemist but I have always had an interest in chemistry and am a member of my local Hazardous Materials Response Team. While in the Army I was also on my unit’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) reconnaissance team.

The good news is that you also don’t need to be a chemist to incorporate and reap the survival benefits of chemistry. This article is to provoke thought about how we prepare and how we think of chemistry, especially in the realm of survival in a post-TEOTWAWKI world. This article is is intended to make you aware that there are very simple chemicals and compounds that you can use and make to give you an extra edge, post-TEOTWAWKI. This article is not intended to be a “how to” on making specific compounds. However I will discuss some just as examples. It is on you to thoroughly educate yourself, wear the appropriate safety gear, apply safety measures, and common sense.

I like to learn about chemistry by looking on Wikipedia at different chemicals or chemical compounds. Before you have bad flashbacks to 10th grade chemistry class, I am not looking at such things as determining a chemical’s atomic number or diagramming a compound’s chemical structure. I like to look at a chemical’s properties, and more importantly its history and common uses. There is, in some cases, also a cross over between chemistry and biology as we’ll get to later. It is very interesting how many of the chemicals and chemical compounds we use to this day have their roots of first use back to several hundred years ago. In his book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, Lewis Dartnell points out that “Cooking is the original chemistry in our history.” Many of the chemicals and chemical processes that we’ll discuss in this article have uses for food production and preservation.

I used to think that iron and steel are what made the Industrial Revolution possible, but without chemistry we would not have progressed like we have. Having a working knowledge of basic chemistry is important when trying to survive and recover from a TEOTWAWKI event.

Safety First

We have to mention safety, especially considering that some of the chemicals and compounds we will be discussing are seemingly non-dangerous. That is until you get it in your eye or use a stronger than normal concentration or mix it with something that doesn’t react well with it. Safety equipment and supplies can NOT be over-rated when dealing with chemicals, even ones that are just “lying around the house”. You get no “machoman” bonus points for not wearing safety gear and taking safety precautions. In fact, when you end up in the ER no one will think you were “macho” at all. Eye protection is critical. However, I would highly suggest a good full-face shield versus just a regular pair of safety glasses. I have seen people who have been the victims of bad reactions and their eyes were saved by a pair of safety goggles but the rest of their facial skin suffered chemical burns. The eyes are perhaps the most sensitive exposed tissue on our bodies, so protect them!

Next are good gloves. But remember, you need to check a compatibility chart to make sure that your gloves will protect you from the chemicals that you are working with. I took a class from an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chemist and in her demonstration, she provided the class with jars filled with various common chemicals and then little bits of cut up gloves made from different materials. We placed the bits of materials in jars and watched as the glove materials dissolved or shriveled up. In some cases, this degradation happened very quickly. So, make sure you check to ensure the gloves you are using will indeed protect you from the chemicals the gloves will be exposed to. Print out a glove compatibility guide now and put it in your binder for reference.

I don’t normally do things that require respiratory protection but should you advance to that level make sure you have a good air purifying respirator (APR) aka gas mask with the right filter(s). Again, you must pick the right filter for the chemical(s) you are dealing with. Also keep in mind that some chemicals displace oxygen and hence a gas mask will not work. A good Tyvek F suit with attached booties and hood are also very helpful for protecting your skin and clothes. Tyvek F is also good for many chemical WMD agents. I don’t always wear a Tyvek suit when doing my “home chemistry” since I normally wear older clothes that I can just discard if they get acid on them. But then again this also depends upon the pH of the substance I’m working with as well. If you are working with chemicals that may react violently then I would highly suggest a Tyvek suit.

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Regardless of whether I wear a protective suit or not, I always have a box or a solution of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) ready to neutralize any spilled acid or a mild acid solution if working with a strong base nearby to help neutralize and decontaminate yourself. Remember that acids and bases can react violently when mixed together. Have an emergency eye wash station set up nearby, too. You can buy a station or you can just use sterile water. I don’t ever do without gloves or eye protection. Above all don’t try to make anything illegal or outside your level of capability.

One last note on safety; be very, very careful of “recipes”, formulas or processes that you find on the Internet. There are sick people out there that purposely provide false and very dangerous directions for some sickening reason. Some of the books that have been printed over the years also throw caution to the wind in their processes. If you want to make something explode do it the legal and safe way: get a blaster’s license.

Consumables/Miscellaneous Equipment/Supplies

A good supply of glass tubing to build your own set ups will also be priceless post-TEOTWAWKI. Along with the glass tubing a tubing cutter will help ensure clean and safe cuts of the tubing. Rubber tubing is also useful for many processes but have a few Hoffman tubing clamps. Items like crucible tongs, powder scoops, spatulas and forceps are useful in the survival laboratory as well. Although your labware is designed to be heat resistant you should avoid having flames come in direct contact with the glassware. Having a ceramic center between wire will stop the flame from coming into contact with your glassware. Cork or rubber stoppers are also a necessity. A cork borer is also a handy tool for making holes in corks or rubber stoppers to allow for glass tubing to pass through. You will also need some type of filter material. You can buy filter paper but I just use coffee filters since they have multiple other uses (including being used in the most wonderful chemical process, making coffee!).

Litmus Paper

Having a good supply of Ph (Litmus Test) paper on hand is a good way of determining if an acid or base is going to hurt you or someone else. Ph paper is also a good way to determine that a base or acid has been neutralized. I can’t stress enough to use Ph paper when trying to identify “unknown” chemicals. About three  decades ago, when I wasn’t as smart, I was at my parents’ homestead and I was going to burn a brush pile. My older brother had been working on replacing an engine in an old car and I remembered him putting the old gas into a white plastic container. I thought using the old gas to start a brush pile on fire was a good way to get rid of it. I was looking around the outside of the shop and saw a sun faded white plastic container and thought “there it is”, as I proceeded to take the cap off and use my nose to see if it was indeed gasoline. To my extremely painful displeasure, it was not. I could feel the evil fumes quickly rolling up and through my nasal cavity. I ran over to the outside water hydrant and flipped the handle up, grabbed the hose end and shot the near ice cold well water up my nose. I made my way into the house to and explained what happened and asked if anyone knew what was in that bottle. My step-father went down to the barn and looked at the bottle and told me it was Muriatic Acid. What I did was dumb and the pain I experienced served as a reminder to never use my nose as a chemical identifier. Litmus paper will only let you know what the Ph of the substance is, it will not necessarily make the determination that the substance isn’t harmful. Ph is just one clue in helping identify whether a chemical is dangerous or not.


Many chemical processes will require knowing the temperature of a liquid. I use a candy thermometer since it is analog and doesn’t need batteries nor will it be susceptible to the effects of EMP.


Having a good supply of labware or glassware is essential to being able to use chemistry for your survival advantage. You want your glassware to be borosilicate glass also know by the trademark “Pyrex”. Plastic labware is available for much cheaper prices however it does not have the ability to be used for any process that requires heating or generates heat. As we have heard before, make sure you have more than one (“one is none and two is one”). The same will be true for your lab glass that can break. Unlike most survival equipment and supplies we can’t necessarily find lab glass at our local big box store.

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The more remote you are, the harder it will be to find replacement lab glass post-TEOTWAWKI. The good news is there are many places on line to buy glassware now. I find that some of the “essential oil” distiller kits are more economical than trying to piece and pay for the individual pieces. Items like tripod burners, support stands, finger clamps, support rings to hold flasks on, can be even more pricey than labware but it is essential for building your set-up. I like to use graduated glass media bottles for storage of chemicals or mixtures. Having beakers of several sizes will allow you to measure different types of chemicals and use as a mixing container. There are also flasks that can do just about the same as beakers but some flasks are set up to perform special functions such as measuring, distillation, or filtering.

Label Your Jars!

When we buy containers of chemicals or compounds from the store, they have nice legible labels that tell us what is in the container, any hazards and precautions we should take. But as time goes on and sun fades words like “Caution”, “Dangerous”, “Muriatic acid” or the product inside the container spills onto the label and those words of caution and contents become a mystery. Make sure you label your contains, especially if you are taking them out of their original containers.

Simple Distillation

One of the most basic processes in chemistry is simple distillation. The process of distillation allows for a substance/chemical in a solution to be separated. The solution base could be water or alcohol. The distillation process is very simple. A boiling flask filled with the mixture is heated. The solution is turned into steam and then is cooled in the condenser tube. Depending upon the chemicals in the mixture, the water may be on the bottom of a separatory funnel while the other chemical in the mixture is floating on top (or vice versa). Opening the valve on the separatory funnel you can collect the water or the chemical in a separate beaker or container. If you don’t have a separatory funnel you can use an eye dropper to separate the two chemicals out of a beaker.

Baking Soda

We have all probably read articles or watched videos on the gazillion and one uses for Baking Soda. Many of those uses entail mixing the baking soda with something else. This mixing is in fact chemistry. I mention this so that we don’t jump to conclusions that all chemistry has to be difficult to understand and accomplish. Something that I have found most interesting is that much of man’s early “chemistry” centers itself around food. Back to baking soda, this time add cream of tartar (potassium bitartrate) to the baking soda and we have, through chemistry, created Baking Powder. Although Baking powder has a shelf life the individual components do not. Besides its usefulness in baking, baking soda is also a great way to neutralize acids, since it is a base.

Table Salt

Another common cooking ingredient that we often don’t think of as a chemical is salt (Sodium Chloride, NaCl). Salt has many applications for food preparation and food preservation but also has medicinal and hygiene applications as well. When we use salt, it is the chemical reaction that gets the job done. The salt creates an environment where bacteria or microbes can not live thus preserving our food when brine in used or making our throat feel better when we gargle it. Salt has a very interesting history in that the word “salary” is derived from the word salt since Roman Soldiers were paid in salt since it was so valuable.

With today’s technology salt is very abundant and inexpensive. However, in a post-TEOTWAWKI world where we cannot use our technology salt will become scarce again and its value will go up. Take advantage of its availability and inexpensive price now and stock up. The good news is salt does not have a shelf life. It should be stored to keep moisture away from it. Those living in coastal areas along oceans will have the ability to extract the salt from the ocean water through evaporation however for those inland salt sources will be more challenging. Like baking soda there are numerous articles on the 101 uses for it. There are numerous ways to use salt in survival chemistry.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)

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