If you've ever been out camping with someone who knows what they're doing then you might have heard of consuming charcoal after eating a meal that you're not too sure of. Well this is no superstition and no old wives' tale, but actually a scientific way to survive ingesting otherwise potentially dangerous substances. It is also used in water filters, to treat stomach problems and more. So what is this magical substance and how does it work?
What Is Activated Charcoal?
Charcoal itself is a form of 'impure' carbon that is formed when you remove the water and volatile substances from any animal or vegetation material. In other words, if you put animals on the fire for long enough or left them to dry out, charcoal would be what you were left with. It is generally formed however through 'pyrolysis' which is the gradual heating of these substances with the absence of oxygen. Usually the substance chosen is wood – so don't worry too much about eating dead things. This then results in the brittle, light, black and porous material we all know as charcoal.
'Activated' charcoal, also sometimes referred to as activated carbon, meanwhile means charcoal that has been treated with oxygen which makes it more porous. Liquids and gases can then pass straight through substance in order to interact with the exposed carbon. So porous is activated carbon that just one gram of activated carbon has a surface area of 500 meters squared – one tenth of an American football field. Often additional chemical treatment will be used on top of this in order to improve the absorption properties of the substance.
Note: Some people will eat charcoal from barbeques and fireplaces believing this to work as a source of activated charcoal. However it is important to note that most 'charcoal' used as cooking fuel today is actually a compact mixture of coal or coke with various binders and so will not work.
How Does Activated Charcoal Work?
So this large porous surface area then allows for the binding of chemicals and toxins that we would not necessarily want in our system and this can then prevent them from getting into our blood stream. If you have accidentally ingested something like chlorine, odors, pigments or contaminants and are feeling unwell as a result, then by eating activated charcoal you can absorb the chemicals that are still in your stomach and thus prevent them from making you more ill.
Further, by using activated charcoal that's in water filters, you can absorb the harmful impurities from the water before they reach your system (actually technically the term should be 'adsorbs' – something adsorbent attaches the molecules to its surface rather than soaking them up, but for our purposes the two terms mean essentially the same thing). Note again however that not all substances will be absorbed by charcoal – for instance fluoride, sodium or nitrates will not be absorbed and that means that if you want to remove the fluoride from your water you will need a more advanced water filter. Likewise it is important to mention that over time the pores in charcoal can become filled and this then makes the charcoal less effective over time meaning it needs to be 'recharged' or replaced. This is why it is necessary to change water filters around once every six months.
To prove its effectiveness, the chemist Professor Touery who discovered it in 1831 purposefully ingested a lethal dosage of strychnine and survived by immediately using the activated charcoal as a chaser.
How to Use It
Activated charcoal can be bought as a powdered form over the shelf. It won't treat all cases of upset stomach, and will rather work within the first hour of swallowing the substance causing the problem. This won't help you with chronic stomach issues, nor with general cases of stomach upset like IBS or indigestion. Rather the recommendation is that every household keep some activated charcoal on stand by so that it can be consumed in the scenario that a family member should ingest something potentially poisonous such as a medicine overdoes, a household cleaner, gone off food, sedatives or narcotics. This will then reduce the body's absorption by up to 60% which could save their life.
Simply consume the recommended dosage as soon as you can and do not mix it with anything like milk, chocolate or syrup as while this might make it go down better it will lose its ability to absorb the chemical. Follow this with lots of water because remember this is a highly absorbent substance and will absorb everything from the toxin itself to any water still in the stomach and this can cause dehydration. You should also avoid taking any medication at the same time as the carbon as it would not be of any benefit. Frequent use is not recommended as this will prevent you from absorbing the nutrients from your diet.