Also called saltpeter, potassium nitrate is a naturally occurring chemical compound that is also chemically synthesized by the oxidation of ammonia. Used for centuries as the oxidizing agent in gunpowder, along with other functions, it’s used today in a variety of products ranging from the explosive to the mundane.
To work, fireworks need gunpowder to thrust or propel them into the air. The gunpowder used is made primarily of potassium nitrate, mixed with charcoal and sulfur. Potassium nitrate is used in both force-and-spark fireworks as well as the colorful flame varieties. It is also used for propulsion in model rockets.
Used as a pyrotechnic fumigant, potassium nitrate is an ingredient used in various insecticides, rodenticides and predacides. According to the EPA, their target pests include ground-nesting wasps, rodents, skunks and coyotes. These products work by combining potassium nitrate with other ingredients to create fumigant gas cartridges. Placed ignited into burrows, these cartridges explode, releasing toxic gas.
Potassium nitrate is the key ingredient in many brands of stump remover. These products work by chemically accelerating stump decomposition, eventually reducing stumps to a soft, manageable mulch. To use, simply drill several holes into a stump and fill them with chemical stump remover mixed with water. Though this process takes time, ranging from several weeks to several months, it can prove effective, especially on older stumps.
Toothpaste designed for sensitive teeth and gums often contain potassium nitrate. As gums recede, underlying roots are exposed, causing pain when they come in contact with heat or cold. According to Toms of Maine, a manufacturer of natural toothpastes, potassium nitrate is “clinically proven effective in reducing pain by shielding the sensory nerves under the gum line.”
Smoked and Processed Meats
Though potassium nitrate was heavily used as a food preservative in the past, it’s since been replaced in most foods by more predictable preservatives such as sodium nitrate. It is still used, however, in some brands of processed, cured and smoked meats, such as salami, corned beef and sausage. Nitrates or nitrites are needed for stability and to provide the correct color and flavor for these meats. Too many nitrates, however, can cause negative health effects, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.