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What Is Salt Peter?

Niki Acker
Updated May 17, 2024
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Salt peter typically refers to the chemical compound potassium nitrate, though it may also refer to sodium nitrate. Salt peter was once collected from decomposing material, but today, it is generally manufactured by treating sodium nitrate, mostly mined in Chile, with potassium chloride and collecting the precipitate. Salt peter was one of the ingredients of the first gunpowder, black powder. Today, it has many uses in both the laboratory and the larger world.

Black powder, oxidized with salt peter, is still used for small novelty explosives, such as fireworks and model rockets, though firearms typically use newer types of gunpowder. Salt peter is most widely used in manufacturing nitric acid, however, which is in turn used to make Trinitrotoluene (TNT) and other modern explosives. Nitric acid has many other applications as well, such as its use as a reagent in the laboratory and as an ingredient in plant fertilizers. Salt peter is also used as a fertilizer and as a stump remover, as it accelerates the decomposition process of tree stumps.

Salt peter can be found in many everyday products as well. It is used to preserve some foods, most commonly meats, although there are concerns about its health effects. Salt peter is also used in ice cream and toothpaste for sensitive teeth.

There used to be a widespread urban legend regarding salt peter that claimed it was added to the food in all male institutions, including the United States Army, as a way to curb libido. It is unlikely that this practice existed, however, since salt peter not only has no such effect, but also can have a number of ill side effects if taken in excess, such as poisoning, reproductive damage, and cancer.

Sodium nitrate, also called salt peter, shares many applications with potassium nitrate. Both can be used to manufacture nitric acid, to propel model rockets, and to increase the shelf life of meats and other foods. Sodium nitrate is also used to manufacture glass and enamel. Like potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate may increase one's likelihood of developing cancer, but it also occurs naturally in leafy green vegetables and may have some health benefits. A small study conducted in Sweden suggested that the nitrates found in vegetables may help lower blood pressure.

What Is Saltpeter Used For?

Saltpeter has a wide variety of uses. It can be used as rocket propellant, as part of a method to remove tree stumps, a gunpowder component, a food preservative or additive, or in gardening.

The ingredient is often used to launch model rockets. Much like how it was used for older types of gunpowder it can also be used in firecrackers and various other types of items requiring propulsion. The saltpeter is used as an oxidizer to burn charcoal combined with sulfur which creates an explosive effect. This mixture is referred to as black powder and has its origins in the 9th century in China.

Saltpeter can be used to remove tree stumps because it can speed up the decomposition of the wood. Holes are drilled in the stump and a combination of saltpeter and water is poured in. Within four to six weeks the stump will be soft enough that it can be easily broken up with an ax.

As a food preservative and additive, saltpeter has been used since ancient times. Sorbet was invented by the Chinese by chilling syrup and combining it with saltpeter and snow. In the first century, a Roman by the name of Epicius invented a recipe using saltpeter and dates. In modern times, saltpeter is commonly used in meat to keep it from going bad. It is part of the process of curing which removes moisture and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria. It can also be used in food products to prevent botulism, act as a flavor additive, and prevent discoloration.

Saltpeter promotes germination and encourages plants to mature quickly. It is most effective for seeds that have a hard outer coating. Combined with water, seeds can be soaked in saltpeter to break down the coating which allows light, water, and nutrients to penetrate the inner layers. Saltpeter can also be applied directly to the soil and be used as an effective fertilizer. If used as a spray it can help plants grow that have damaged roots or when the soil is too wet. If the plant requires more nutrition than the roots will allow saltpeter can be used to encourage the plant to take in more nutrients.

Is Saltpeter Used In Gunpowder?

Saltpeter when used in black powder creates gunpowder. It is often credited as the first chemical explosive. It was eventually succeeded by smokeless powder a millennium later which is what modern firearms use today.

Saltpeter was used in different percentages as part of black powder depending on its use. The French in 1879 used a mixture of 75% saltpeter, 12.5% sulfur, and 12.5% charcoal for its gunpowder. The British version was slightly different using 75% saltpeter, 10% sulfur, and 15% charcoal. The mixture was different for rocket propulsion, however. In the same era, the British used 62.4% saltpeter, 14.4% sulfur, and 23.2% charcoal for use in rockets.

These combinations were altered to affect the burn rate of the powder. With less saltpeter in comparison to the other two materials, the powder would burn slower, allowing the rocket to traverse long distances. Gunpowder, which needed to be more immediately explosive without necessarily traveling lengthy distances, could benefit from having more saltpeter.

A strong drawback of saltpeter-based gunpowder is the smoke that results when it is used. During combat situations, the white smoke arising from firearms would either serve to disguise troop movements or give away where a shot came from. Also, the solids that produce the white smoke could easily gunk up the barrel of the firearm, making each additional shot more difficult than the last to load and fire properly. To top it off, if any residue was left in the barrel, the firearm would quickly corrode because gunpowder rapidly absorbs moisture.

What Is Saltpeter Used For in the Army?

You might have heard that saltpeter is added to food or drink in the military to suppress libido. This however is a myth. There is no reason to believe that saltpeter inhibits sexual desire and this has never been a practice. While saltpeter is often present in many foods it is not added in extra amounts for this imaginary purpose. If the army did add more saltpeter to its food or drink, it could be poisonous, as saltpeter is toxic in large quantities.

The myth appears to have originated as a reason why military recruits do not feel much if any sexual desire during basic training. The real reason, however, likely has much to do with stress. Basic training is intensely demanding on the body and is highly stressful which naturally reduces libido.

The fact is that saltpeter has no specific purpose in the military except for its actual uses mentioned previously.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a About Mechanics editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

By anon1005606 — On Oct 06, 2021

It's a food preservative, and has absolutely zero to do with anyone's sex drive. You most likely eat the stuff every day in processed foods. It's in just about every packaged food product around. Its also known as "sodium nitrate", same exact stuff.

Look at your food labels, and you'll see it. Yes, it's used in military, and institutional food products, just like everywhere else. And again, has nothing to do libido, or ability to "perform". Anyone who thinks so is just uneducated about the facts, and is spreading a myth.

By NCbkrbtch — On Apr 10, 2014

I'm a correctional officer in NC. My first husband was incarcerated in a state prison. We can both promise you that salt peter is not just salt and it is used in male prisons. At one time they went as far as putting it in the water supply since the prison had its own system. My father was a Marine in 'Nam and he also swears that they were given salt peter.

So those of you who refuse to believe it are the ones with the blinders on. It must be nice to live in a fairy tale where your government would never do such things.

@nychik Post No. 3: Get your son some help quickly. He would do better in an actual prison as far as medical treatment. States have better than city and county, and the Feds have it the best when it comes to inmate care. None do enough of the right stuff. They give the inmates crap they don't want or need to shut them up about basic human needs.

Yes, some inmates are just taking up space, but others are just men doing time for something a lot of free folks have done and just didn't get caught. Today everything is becoming illegal.

By anon354584 — On Nov 09, 2013

Preservative, duh! To preserve food, especially when you're feeding thousands of people ahead of time. Like jail and the military and obviously like it says in the article, it causes reproductive damage -- no sex drive. So yes it does cause low sex drive, but it is a side effect of having to preserve the massive amounts of food. Come on, it's common sense really.

By anon347468 — On Sep 07, 2013

I know for a surety that saltpeter is used in any institution where people are detained for periods of time for the suspected reason: to kill the sex drive.

By anon347465 — On Sep 07, 2013

Yes, yes, yes! Saltpeter is definitely used in the military, in prisons, and in mental institutions and anywhere else people are being detained. Don't let anyone fool you.

By anon287140 — On Aug 23, 2012

Can you dry cure bacon or ham without using saltpeter?

By anon276270 — On Jun 22, 2012

@#27: You're absolutely right. They do put salt peter in the food in MCRD San Diego (I can't say for sure about Camp Lejeune. I never worked mess duty there but I doubt they'd change the recipes from one to the other). During mess and maintenance week, I worked the loading dock of the chow hall and I personally carried in three 100-pound bags marked salt peter on Monday and Wednesday and five of them on Friday.

It is only added to the recruit chow and only those up to about the 10th or 11th week. A friend who was tapped out to the S.O.I. recruit chow hall in Camp Pendleton said they do the same thing there, just in smaller doses. S Hawk CPL USMC.

By anon243429 — On Jan 27, 2012

It was used extensively in Children's homes in South Africa. Most of these children now have reproductive damage, infertility and it also stunted growth of the sex organs.

By anon243178 — On Jan 26, 2012

They absolutely do add it to food in jails. I was at one such institution (about 10 years ago) visiting am inmate and there was a sign on the wall stating that saltpeter was added to the food to keep inmates "calm".

By anon168304 — On Apr 16, 2011

potassium nitrate is commonly used as a food preservative. saltpeter in the food could be a reason for the prevalence of ED. Funding studies to prove this would take millions of dollars, and who is going to fund such studies? (especially if it is profitable not to know, in order to sell ED drugs, or done intentionally to keep students/prisoners/soldiers in line, etc.)

I have read that the preservatives sodium nitrate and nitrite are unhealthy. I'll just avoid them all. It is possible to find meats and other foods that are not preserved with any nitrates/nitrites.

By anon161418 — On Mar 19, 2011

Reply to embalmer: Your comments are interesting, but really have no relevance to the topic of whether

saltpeter been given in the prisons. Did you know in the uk if relatives want the deceased dressed, they cut the back of the suit or dress with a knife so they don't have to lift the bodies when they are placed in the coffin. Nobody knows. Do you do this in the us?

By anon160971 — On Mar 17, 2011

no 19: I don't think saltpeter caused your problem. it would take more than three days to poison you. If you think about what you said, you confirm you have gout. the stress of prison may have caused the condition to flare up, and the prison should have allowed you to have access to a doctor, but in saying that many people outside or released from prison cannot get a doctor, the mortality rates of released prisoners make bad reading, as do the rates for people in prison.

You are only safe if you are a high profile prisoner, They do not dare do anything to them, as they know they attract publicity and human rights lawyers. They know people like you can do very little.

By anon160963 — On Mar 17, 2011

reply to no 6: Regarding the toxic side of saltpeter and sodium nitrate: it can be poisonous if taken internally. I would not advise this. As a child I had larger chemistry sets my mother bought me, and I had a larger shed for experiments, and I made some large cannons out of nitrates and sugar. The substance burns very hot and can be difficult to put out. I used sand or earth. I made large cannons and fired these with a rag fuse, and used rag to create compression. The cannon blew a hole straight through an old oak door, and took off when it fired.

I do not recommend doing this, and do not try and light

any mixtures as the one you mention. They can burn very hot and fast and give off toxic gas. If you do insist on doing this, do not panic when it burns. Use a thick metal dish and have a bucket of sand ready. It can burn in some cases like magnesium. You have been warned by someone who knows.

By anon160958 — On Mar 17, 2011

Can I just make some comments regarding the apparent confusion between salt and saltpeter, salt as in cooking salt, which is also used as a preservative? It is a totally different chemical compound from saltpeter as used in gunpowder.

The salt of the rock, as it is called, is mined salt, and not the compound saltpeter. Salt does not burn. In fact, it will put out fire if nothing else is available.

By anon160682 — On Mar 16, 2011

@marine number 27: I think you,re right. My friend worked at home office hospital run by Jack Straw. They used to detain suspect criminals, and the shrinks used to trick them by withholding the names of the drugs and falsely claim they were for another medical condition. They would hold them for years in this way without giving them a trial. You were very lucky if you got out. They also secretly detained I.R.A. suspects by falsifying and changing their medical records with deceased patients. Do not trust them.

By anon160681 — On Mar 16, 2011

I saw the article you wrote about the county jail. You're lucky you can sue in the u.s. Here, the files

against the authorities would all go missing, and even

if you got to court a bent judge would cover up for

the prison. Prisoners in england do not get the

same medical treatment as free civilians. That is why

so many of the poor souls die.

By anon160679 — On Mar 16, 2011

Reply to number 17, what a load of rubbish you talk about, you claim to be a chemist and argue you know what the authorities do in prison and the forces, you don't know what you're talking about. it is clear from all the comments made that saltpeter used in these incidents was not used as it

would be by a chemist.

By anon160406 — On Mar 15, 2011

@19: Be careful if you have a police record. in the

uk prisoners are being killed by authorities, by

denial of medical treatment. you had a lucky escape. Keep an eye on them, once you are dead you won't

be able sue, will you!

By anon160401 — On Mar 15, 2011

@29: I was in the naval cadet force, and somebody

pissed in the potato pot as a joke. do you think

they might have done it to the gravy, they do piss

in people's drinks as well, in pubs in the u.k.

it could explain this, they also do it to food in the

u.k. if they don't like people.

By anon160398 — On Mar 15, 2011

@number 33: I know what you say is true. I have

family members who have worked for the british

intelligence. there is much that still remains top

secret that MI5 or MI6 will never reveal. you are

right and not paranoid.

By anon160397 — On Mar 15, 2011

@ 25: don't worry about not having enough

sex. I had a lot of this when I was young. I spent

time in europe and had lots of girlfriends, many

more than most people I know, and after a while sex can

become boring. you are not missing as much as you

might think. when you get to my age, a good chinese

meal is much better.

By anon160396 — On Mar 15, 2011

regarding saltpeter being given to people in jail: large amounts can make people ill if taken internally. It could be the cause of your sons' health problems. he has a serious condition that could kill, so get him some help and demand an explanation from the prison authorities.

In england, it has been established that many people died as a result of being detained and given lithium carbonate. They were poisoned over long periods by the drug. Some bodies have been exhumed and the bones still

contain the drug.

Many people are dying in prisons as a result of being poisoned, and not just in the third world. A leak from the home office recently disclosed how thousands of prisoners had been killed in U.K. jails by the denial of proper medical care. The evidence proves they could have lived if given proper medical treatment. In many incidents, they withhold drugs or

treatments available to people outside of the prison

service. Sadly, many people who are innocent die.

Make waves. Get your son medical treatment and get

an explanation. Tell them you will go to the papers. The death sentence has been abolished, and we have a moral responsibility to make sure it stays that way, and is not reintroduced my maladministration of the law. I have contacts within the government. I know what goes on with them.

By anon160393 — On Mar 15, 2011

personally, this is only my advice: I would never take any secret injections given by governments or authorities, without knowing what these are.

Pay careful attention to any future medical problems and get medical help if you become ill. If you think your illness is due to drugs given by the army, sue them.

By anon158078 — On Mar 05, 2011

I sure would like to find out more about the secret book that the military has about salt peter. I do believe it is given to the military personal today. What is the big secret about it anyway?

By anon147890 — On Jan 31, 2011

Also use in in prison conditions added to food.

By anon140889 — On Jan 08, 2011

as an ex-marine, I know saltpeter is real and used in bootcamp chow. How about those secret pills and injections we had to take in Saudi?

By anon140887 — On Jan 08, 2011

I too am an ex-Marine. There is something in the gravy. Being from the South, we love gravy and put it all over everything we eat if available. I too had no erection in bootcamp even though I tried. Once in the fleet, the erections came back. There is an erection difference between basic fleet gravy.

By anon138601 — On Jan 01, 2011

i was up at fort drum in the kitchen on kp and there was a box there. It was red and blue, had a jewish star and a guy on it and it said salt peter. yes they do use it. the food tastes strange and it constipates the hell out of you.

By anon135081 — On Dec 17, 2010

They put something In your body during usmc boot camp. how do I know? Because my IQ is over 170 and I use logic. i had no erections until the last few weeks of boot camp, and as for the stress theory suppressing erections haha. Fat chance because while in Afghanistan it wasn't a problem. Ask any marine.

It's real. Don't ask some dumb civilian. As for testing the food in boot camp to "prove it," I assume it would be similar to any attempts to set food on area 51. this is why usmc boot camp has 100 percent mentally disabled people working the chow hall as food servers. Ask any marine -- it's the truth, and the truth is the truth. We lived it.

By anon133823 — On Dec 12, 2010

Saltpeter is real! Whether admitted by institutions or scientist, its real! Believe whatever you want, but until you actually experience it, you can't say nothing! Read all the books and reports you want. It's real! The exact ingredients and/or recipe can definitely be up for debate, but as far as it's existence, is just a moot point.

It's heavily used in juvenile detention centers throughout the US.

By anon133609 — On Dec 11, 2010

Everything around us is controlled by secret societies. That's how these things are kept secretive. When I was a child, the principal at my school got me to inhale a substance that has caused lifelong impotence. They said that they were "neutering me".

They didn't think I would remember when I got older (old enough to have sex), because I was very young when this happened. At the age of 36, I have never married, or even had an interest in it. The principal eventually got a gag order from the court to silence me, claiming defamation. These secret societies are out of control.

By anon90049 — On Jun 14, 2010

Saltpeter, in England still saltpetre, came from salt of petra, meaning rock. What you have is quite literally salt of rock, referring to the hard crystals form it takes.

By anon89729 — On Jun 11, 2010

It is used in the army still. It prevents you from getting sexually excited. You could fill a library full of illegal practices that the U.S. government practices daily. Say what you want, it does happen. Ask someone who "was" in the army not someone who still is. You'll get two different answers.

By anon83362 — On May 10, 2010

You are all correct. I was a physician in the Army. We sat around and came up with putting saltpeter in the food to make woman's breasts shrivel up and to stop male erections.

There is a secret book that has been in the military for years, but you need to know the handshake. It is a huge conspiracy really. The real reason is if you are killed in combat, you will stay preserved so we harvest your organs and do all of that other stuff you have read about. Think about it.

By anon80735 — On Apr 28, 2010

Mr. chemist, they commonly use sodium *nitrite* not *nitrate* for preserving meat, but I think they both do the same thing.

I have a friend who was a marine and he swears that he never got "hard" while in training and as soon as he was out noticed a difference "down there", so it sounds like the government may be doing something, but I think he also used steroids so maybe that affects things. I don't know.

By anon73644 — On Mar 28, 2010

i have gout and when i got in trouble and was sent to county jail for 10 days. after the third day i could hardly walk or or grab things for my hand and feet were so severely inflamed. i was denied medical treatment for the nearest doctor was 50 miles away. my sister had a lawyer threatening to file charges. i was released the next day. I strongly my inflammation was salt peter associated.

By anon69757 — On Mar 10, 2010

I have been embalming for over 40 years and a trade secret is that we at times use salt peter to inject into the arteries and pack inside the mouth to further preserve the body. Sometimes in cases that have exposed cavities in the chest, legs, or arms I pack with a hearty supply of salt peter, which is easily available. You can then prolong the 'freshness' of the body before eventual putrefaction.

By sciencejunky — On Feb 03, 2010

It's merely a preservative -anon2556. Just a preservative. Many institutions will use it when food has to sit out for a bit before it's served just for safety purposes. The name "salt peter" is just a slang word and something that has been passed down through time because it was a good story. Just like getting cold will give you a cold. That's not true either.

By anon63678 — On Feb 03, 2010

As a chemist I have to agree with the article. It is simply not true -- read my words it is not true that people who are in the armed forces or incarcerated are given "salt peter".

The only reason it acquired the name is because people had too hard of a time saying the word "potassium".

It is amazing how people will take something and run with it and come hell or high water they believe it even if told otherwise by a scientist.

It is not a substance that has anything to do with a male or a female's libido. Period! Potassium nitrate also known as sodium nitrate is also called by the name "salt peter". If you will look on the ingredients in many of the prepared or semi-prepared foods you have in your pantry this very minute you will see many of them contain "salt peter" except it is on the labels as "potassium nitrate" or "sodium nitrate".

So, now that we've got all that cleared up, I would suggest doing some research for the ones who were in the service and claim there was something added to the food that altered one's libido.

And as for the person who posted their son was incarcerated for five months and now had pancreatitis and was wondering if he was getting "salt peter" in jail. No, he is not getting a dose of "salt peter" other than what is in the food from the distributor. Nobody is getting this as a medication or a way to prevent libido -- nobody.

Chances are if he happens to be in jail for drugs or alcohol related problems his pancreas and liver have really undergone a beating from the drugs and/or alcohol and his pancreas and liver in an effort to rejuvenate just haven't been able to keep up.

Pancreatitis can be deadly. Make sure you stay on their medical personnel to get him the proper treatment. He is a ward of the state whether he is incarcerated in county jail or state facilities. He is entitled to the same medical care the general public is. Make sure he gets it. If you don't stay on them they do have a tendency to let things go too long. They sure don't want a lawsuit on their hands because those cases don't usually end up in the county's favor.

O.K. I'm stepping down off my soapbox now. Good night folks!

By anon62232 — On Jan 25, 2010

When I went to boot camp back in 94, there was talk about saltpeter in the food. Trust me, I had no problem with having an erection because the women in our sister company were looking more attractive by the week because they were the only females we saw for about eight weeks. I believe it was the stress of being in that situation that affected most people, not the saltpeter.

By anon58864 — On Jan 05, 2010

I recently got home from basic training. I noticed that over time the females lost their breasts, grew facial hair and stopped having periods. If I didn't have breast implants already, I would have had no breast tissue at all.

I also noticed that the males never got hard at all, and I confirmed this during coed combatives. I noticed that the males who were being out-processed started getting hard again, a normal thing to happen to a male throughout the day.

In every meal we were served the same weird gravy, and a lot of the usual foods obviously had stuff mixed in with it. Some meals we only had gravy, rice and salad available, so we would almost always end up eating the weird gravy substance, because it was the only hot item to eat.

The food arrived in the DEFAC already prepared, for the most part. I avoided food that I suspected being supplemented, and I was soon considered to be a "pervert" because I became quite horny over time. We were only allowed MREs once per day. Some of the strangest food I'd ever seen in my whole life was served to me while in basic.

We were also force fed Quaker Chewy granola bars, something that still horrifies me to this day. After a while, most of us would physically fight each other for a granola bar, and we'd start screaming at the sight of them. Truly bizarre social experiments!

By anon58862 — On Jan 05, 2010

I saw it put in people's food in the military in 1993 and 1997 in basic training for the navy and the army (united states). And the explanation I was given by the cooks was that it was "salt peter". The reason why they put it in there was to keep guys from getting erect.

By anon58032 — On Dec 29, 2009

my friend is going into the marines and his DI's said that you have to get a shot in the testicles to prevent erections.

By anon48014 — On Oct 08, 2009

Saltpeter was most definitely given to the military in the 60's when i was in Korea and then in Vietnam.

By anon47665 — On Oct 06, 2009

@Tndr2 so really-- you want to know if a smoke bomb is toxic. people aren't stupid. and no it's not toxic.

By brainblocked — On May 20, 2009

We have just built a new kitchen and have noticed white fungus like crystals growing on the wall. Friends tell us it is saltpeter!! How can we get rid of it? I have tried bleach etc nothing works, it just keeps growing back.

Thank for your help, Agnes

By anon30899 — On Apr 26, 2009

more conspiracy theorists than molecules of salt peter here.

two words: *prove it*.

if you can't, then you are wearing a tinfoil hat.

By Dannybrrc — On Jan 29, 2009

Is Salt Peter found in cigarettes to make them burn faster than normal?

By tndr2 — On Oct 26, 2008

I would like to know if saltpeter is toxic to burn, or a mixture of saltpeter, sugar, baking soda, organic powder dye. I ask because I would like to know its toxicity, if any.

By Reingold — On May 18, 2008

I'm sure what anon said is true. You can't always believe everything that is posted on the internet. They also add saltpeter (softpeter) to the food and drinks in the Army and at college dorms.

By nychik — On Aug 18, 2007

My son is allergic to sulfa medications and products due to a blood deficiency (G6PD). In reading your article I see someone posted about salt peter being used in jails. My son has been incarcerated for 5 months and now has pancreatitis, which can be caused by sulfa drugs and products. Does anyone know if this is true, that salt peter IS used in county jails and male institutions?

Thank you for any information you may be able to provide.

By anon2556 — On Jul 16, 2007

I happen to know for a fact that county jails at least (West Valley), Rancho Cucamonga, CA where I worked in the kitchen added this "preservative". I personally witnessed it being added to the powered potatoes and eggs which one or the other was consumed daily. They didn't give any specific reason for adding the preservative salt peter. After reading the information on your site I definitely wouldn't consider it to be an old wives tale.

Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a About Mechanics editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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