Innovation in your urine

Fri, Jun 25, 2010, 01:00

Some 36,000 pregnant Dutch women donate their urine in a unique 'mothers for mothers' scheme to help infertile couples in the Netherlands

THE FRENCH upper classes would bathe in it to beautify their skin. In ancient Rome its powers as a teeth whitener were renowned and history tells us other cultures believed that it had a variety of medicinal uses, such as curing strep throat and wounds, stimulating the circulation and immunisation against allergies.

Some modern gardeners will even tell you that you are flushing a valuable organic liquid fertiliser down the loo and that diluted fresh urine is ideal for gardens with the advantage that it’s plentifully available and costs nothing.

Convinced of its health benefits, British actress Sarah Miles has been drinking her own urine daily for over 30 years. American major league baseball player Moises Alou has revealed how he urinates on his hands to alleviate calluses, which he claims allows him to bat without using batting gloves. And, never one to shy away from unconventional practices, Madonna has claimed that she helped to cure her athlete’s foot problem by urinating all over her feet.

There is no scientific evidence of therapeutic benefits, yet practioners of what is known in alternative medicine as “urine therapy” believe it works, though modern sensibilities and a sense of prudishness prevent widespread use for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

When former prime minister of India Morarji Desai hailed urine as a medical solution for the millions of Indians who could not afford medical treatment many wrote him off as a nutter. Yet it is probably no coincidence that the Dutch, creators of a country from the sea, who use every inch of ground productively and are to the forefront of the recycling revolution, are discovering new and practical uses for human urine.

Some 36,000 pregnant Dutch women donate their urine in a unique “mothers for mothers” scheme to help infertile couples in the Netherlands. They are encouraged to bottle all their urine on a daily basis between the sixth and 16th week of pregnancy, the time when it is rich in the hCG hormone. This is then used by pharmaceutical companies to produce medicines which help female and male infertility.

The highly organised scheme, in which couriers collect crates of bottled urine on a weekly basis from the women’s homes, is so successful that substantial quantities of the hCG hormone are available, bringing down the cost of treatment. The urine donors, who learn about the scheme from their GP or health centre, join Mothers for Mothers because they want to help others to become parents, according to the pharmaceutical giant Organon/MSD, who set it up.

The women are not paid for their urine, qualifying instead for books about new life and parenthood, echograph photos of their baby for those who enter a draw, and other gifts.

On their website, the Mothers for Mothers foundation say that extraction of the hCG hormone is complicated and costly and millions of litres of urine deliver just a few grammes of the hormone used to treat infertility.

Due to the success of the Mothers for Mothers scheme and the dilemma of what to do with all that urine left over after extraction of hCG, the recycling of human urine in the Netherlands is being taken a step further. With substantial quantities of this urine at their disposal, a Dutch water and environmental technology company, GMB, is setting up Europe’s first factory to make fertiliser from human urine. Urine contains the three most important plant nutrients which farmers buy as artificial fertiliser: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. GMB says using human urine as a source of fertiliser saves money and fossil fuels, used extensively in the production of chemical fertilisers.

When the factory opens in September it will process up to five million litres of human urine per annum in the first large-scale plant of its kind in the world. Another source will come from new sanitation systems in the home whereby liquid and solid human waste can be divided and treated differently.

As well as using Mothers for Mothers supplies, the Dutch innovators will also collect substanial quantities of human urine from mobile toilet installations at pop concerts and other mass events in Holland. Describing this new form of recycling of free human urine as “cradle-to-cradle production”, they say it is good for the environment, reducing the growth of algae in effluent systems and treatment costs.

And it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “spending a penny”.