As a child, if I told my mother that my stomach was giving me any sort of discomfort, I knew exactly what would happen. She'd lay me down, leave the room, and immediately return with a nice, clear glass filled with to the brim with jet-black liquid. I knew what this meant, too. I'd drink the concoction, but only once my mind had decided that I couldn't put up with that upset stomach any longer. As a child, drinking charcoal was a messy, unpleasant affair.
Now, however, I drink it because I know it works. I mix a little in with my water any time I feel flu-like symptoms coming on, and it most assuredly helps.
But where this stuff really comes in handy is pretty high on the usefulness scale.
I'm sure you've heard of people using activated charcoal for poisoning before, but maybe you didn't realize that it's not just an old wives' tale. The science behind charcoal use as a first-aid treatment is very well-researched.
If your children are prone to investigating the delicious liquids that live under the kitchen sink, or if your pet periodically drinks from the bleach-filled mop water (I've inexplicably had this happen), then read on!
First and foremost, activated charcoal, no matter how potent, can't be subsituted entirely for calling poison control. Rather, its usefulness is best described as a first line of defense for accidental poison ingestion. That's how emergency rooms use it.
Still, activated charcoal is very effective at neutralizing toxins. A 1984 study found that when activated charcoal was given to sheep along with a plant known very well for being toxic to sheep, the charcoal completely adsorbed the poison.
Then there's the famous account of French chemist Michael Bertrand ingested five grams(!) of arsenic mixed with activated carbon (another name for charcoal). Of course, he lived to tell the tale, but also experienced no symptoms whatsoever. A similar experiment was conducted many years later, this time with strychnine. This man lived as well. Now that's confidence! (Don't try it at home).
HOW IT WORKS
Charcoal becomes "activated" when it is riddled on the molecular level with pores that increase its surface area exponentially. (See my blog post on just this subject). It is then able to bond with toxic molecules, which prevents the body from absorbing those toxins. This bonding process is called "adsorption."
WHAT CAN IT BE USED FOR?
Activated charcoal will readily adsorb and neutralize hundreds of poisons, including arsenic, mercury, pesticides, strychnine, warfarin, hemlock, and E. Coli. Over 4,000 chemicals, drugs, plant and microbial toxins, allergens, venoms, and wastes are effectively neutralized by activated charcoal, when enough is administered.
Charcoal is also a fantastic detox for virtually any drug overdose if given in time. It counteracts ingested aspirin, barbiturates, Prozac, paracetamol (Tylenol), phenobarbital, amphetamines, cocaine, morphine, opium... and the list goes on.
Furthermore, one of charcoal's greatest uses is for food poisoning. Usually, you aren't sure what exactly caused the food poisoning, and charcoal is a great universal antidote for such instances.
HOW MUCH DO I NEED?
The best thing about using activated charcoal is that you can't really take too much. Sure, you don't want to overdo it on purpose, but you don't have to worry about accidentally taking an amount that will harm you.
There's no hard and fast rules for dosage, but the general recommendation is, according to the text Principles of Clinical Toxicology, is roughly 50-100 grams for an adult, 25-50 grams for a child, and 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight for infants. A ratio of 10:1 charcoal to poison is desirable, but not always practical. It's important to remember that a large enough dose must be taken in order to be effective. Further, the first major dose should be given within the first hour following ingestion.
Perhaps the best closing statemant I could give comes from an article published in the LA Times, in the form of a quote given by Henry Spiller and George Rodgers of Kentucky Poison Center and the University of Lousiville, respectively. They said,
"Greater efforts need to be put into educating parents about the need to stock activated charcoal in the home in advance of a poisoning. Pharmacists and pediatricians, too, should be made aware that the substance can effectively be used at home."