Potassium permanganate: The Most Useful Survival Chemical

by Aaron Frankel on July 28, 2011

in Medical, Survival Skills, Urban Survival Skills

When people think about survival tools, chemicals are usually not one of the first things that come to mind. Potassium permanganate should though.

Also known as KMnO4, Condy’s Crystals and permanganate of potash, Potassium permanganate is a jack of all survival trades.When it comes to survival, the more you know, the more you can do with less. Like wilderness medicine, it also often becomes about improvising with less than ideal tools.

I first learned about the usefulness of this chemical while watching a Survivor Man episode titled Sonoran Desert. In the Sonoran Desert episode (Season 1 Episode 2), Les Stroud demonstrates how mixing Potassium permanganate and glycerin will start a chemical fire. Intrigued, I did some digging.

Turns out it’s not just good for making fires. It’s also good for:

  • Purifying water.
  • Creating an antiseptic solution.
  • As an anti-fungal treatment for the hands and feet.
  • As a cholera disinfectant
  • Treating canker sores
  • Marking snow as an emergency signal.

Proceed with caution, however. The information provided in this article is intended for emergency situations only. Caution should be exercised when using any of the following information.

Potassium permanganate will start a fire when mixed with a couple of different compounds. Glycerin is the most common, but antifreeze will also do the trick. Antifreeze seems to create a reaction that is a little more violent. Be very careful when using either. The reaction is not always immediate. It can take several seconds for the reaction to start a fire – let it be.

After gathering all the necessary fire tinder and large pieces of wood to keep your fire going, place a teaspoon of Potassium permanganate on a flat surface. Carefully add the same amount of Glycerine or Antifreeze evenly on top of your pile. Next, stand back a couple of feet and wait at the ready with your tinder.

Mix sugar in with the Glycerin before adding to your Condy’s Crystals, and you’ll get a decent signal smoke.

For water purification, its use is fairly straight forward. First, if there is any sediment in the water, strain it out. Then add 3 – 4 crystals per liter of water. Stir or shake for a few seconds then let sit for 2 hours. The water should be a light pink (a concentration of 1:10,000) – no darker.

Here are some proportions for killing the different nasty organisms that can find their way into water:

  • Bacteria requires a minimum of 2.5mg per liter of water.
  • Viruses require a minimum of 50mg (close to danger levels) per liter.

Potassium permanganate can become toxic in high concentrations, just like anything. The lowest recorded instance of a person being poisoned was 100mg per kilogram of body weight. That being said, the LD50 scale for Potassium permanganate is 1900mg per kilogram of body weight.

Just remember, as long as it is pink – it’s probably ok to drink.

To use as an antiseptic, anti-fungal treatment, or emergency snow signal, add crystals one by one until the solution turns purple. Shake and use to flush out a wound, soak a fungal infection, or to leave a message in the snow.

Don’t eat snow marked in yellow – just saying.

Ideally, Potassium permanganate should be stored in a nonreactive plastic bottle with a Teflon coated cap. Most plastic bottles and non-coated caps should be fine.

Potassium permanganate is not a perfect option for any of the above listed purposes. If other more convention options are available  - use them first. What it does do is offer another option should you find yourself with it as your only resource.

Warning

Everything in life comes with a warning label, “Caution, this air compressor may cause bloating.” Here are a couple things you should be warned about when it comes to playing with Potassium permanganate.

  • It’s an aggressive oxidizer. It must be kept in a safe, non-reactive container.
  • Solutions mixed too strong can cause caustic burns!
  • Potassium permanganate will dye just about anything it comes in contact with pink or purple.

Resources:

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JD July 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Interesting. Where is the best place to get something like this?

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2 Aaron Frankel August 8, 2011 at 2:59 pm
3 RT August 13, 2011 at 1:10 am

Just go to any Lowes or Home Depot. Ask where the chemicals for the water softning systems are. You will find this stuff for about $8 for a quart size bottle. It is used in the filter that removes Iron from your well water

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4 Aaron Frankel August 13, 2011 at 9:48 am

Thanks for the tip RT

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5 Joe October 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm

I would recommend being extremely cautious about using Potassium permanganate as described above. I was a drinking water treatment plant operator for quite some time and we used this in the treatment process. Of all the chemicals we had on hand this was the only one that we could not touch without wearing a respirator. It has very fine particles that can do some pretty horrible things to your lungs. Also any amount of moisture will result in this stuff leaching purple everywhere. It is a great way to ruin cloths and carpet. Be extremely careful with this stuff.

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6 Aaron Frankel October 19, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the information and warning, Joe. While I did a bunch of research and had a friend that is a chemist look into it, I never came across the lung concern. …Good do know.

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7 Stewart December 13, 2013 at 3:32 am

Most Potassium Permanganate bought for domestic use comes as small crystals, so this is of no concern. In industrial facilities it is often used as a fine powder which might become easily airborne if disturbed. I wouldn’t want to oxidise the lining of my lungs by breathing this in. But, given that about 2g is sufficient for fire-lighting and that about 1g would disinfect a gallon of (fresh, clear) water, doing anything described in this article is not going to be a concern on this count even with the powdered form.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend snorting it, whatever the form.

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8 david cortez November 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm

i learned about this myself on the same show just today and that is why im looking it up! ..that is funny to me because i thought no one else would have done this! but i dont know how to get or find the stuff to do it with. when i go camping people think im nuts for bringing little mirrors and magnifing glasses with me. you never know what can happen in a situation .

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9 Aaron Frankel November 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I’ve heard you may be able to find it at pool supply stores and some hardware stores. Amazon also Potassium Permanganate for sale.

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10 david cortez November 29, 2013 at 7:09 pm

and i dont know what the glycerin is.

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11 Stewart December 13, 2013 at 3:43 am

Look for “glycerine” in the home-baking section of your favourite supermarket, or “glycerol” at your favourite pharmacy.

If you live near a bio-diesel processing plant, this is a waste product – so they are likely to give it away for free to anyone that is prepared to take it.

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12 Maggie March 3, 2014 at 2:59 am

Hi, I bought some two weeks ago at the chemist.. My grandson cut his feet rather badly on coral and they got infected. He only used it for a week and his feet healed in no time.

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13 Jeremy January 7, 2014 at 4:32 pm

They also sell Permanganate at Radio Shack or most likely any similar electronics supply store, it’s used to etch circuit boards..

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14 Aminul February 24, 2014 at 7:21 pm

I want to know the Production country (export )of potassium permanganate

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15 Aaron February 26, 2014 at 8:37 pm

It is sold at any hardware store ie:home depot, lowes as ” PotPerm”. http://t.homedepot.com/p/Pot-Perm-2-lb-Potassium-Permanganate-97802/202519998

Its is also great for bleaching wood and antiquing fabrics, also used to make faded denim amongst a million other uses.

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16 Alex Riehl May 5, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Aaron: I would be very careful of using ghe PotPerm version for purifying drinking water; the version sold there is a “free-flow” grade that has additives to prevent caking when used in industrial applications such as pool-filter cleaning. You’re better off getting a small quantity of this stuff in laboratory grade crystals online.

In addition, be aware of the MSDS for this stuff and use it very, very carefully.
An MSDS can be found here: http://www.sciencecompany.com/msds/Potassium_Permanganate_MSDS.pdf
Overdose is very, very easy and symptoms may not manifest for weeks. Wear gloves when handling, don’t drink any in which the crystals have not completely dissolved, and definitely don’t ingest in any kind of high concentration. The MSDS states that a fatal oral dose is 10 grams, but studies show that non-fatal dosages can lead to acute-onset Parkinson’s. These studies recommend that if there is any possibility of overdose [and maybe in any case of ingestion], N-acetyl cysteine [available fairly cheaply online] should be taken immediately to attempt to counteract the effects, and then emergency medical care should be sought.

This stuff works well in the right amounts, but be careful. Better safe than sorry.

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17 Aaron Frankel June 10, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Thanks for the awesome comment.

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18 santosh May 25, 2014 at 12:23 pm

can i use 2 to 3 crystals to brush dog teeth

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19 Aaron Frankel June 10, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Ummmm… Thank you for the question. But this is outside the scope of this article. Your best bet would be to ask a Veterinarian.

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20 AL McCoy August 5, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Ok.. I see where it says 2mg/litre and 50mg/liter for bacteria and viruses.. Well what if you don’t know about the water..? Is this the best out instead of the 3-4 crystals per litre..? And also, if you’re in a survival situation, how the heck do you know how to measure in mg..? Lol Can anybody tell me how to guess at this..?

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21 Aaron Frankel August 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm

Hey Al,

You’re over thinking it. Just use your best guess. If you’re unsure of the water use more. If you’re worried about overdoing it, strain and boil the water instead.

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