Physical Science - Other

How Activated Charcoal Works

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Activated charcoal and carbon act as filters and are widely used in medicines and purification mechanisms. What makes this charcoal different than other forms like the briquettes we use in our grills? Activated charcoal is infused with large amounts of oxygen. Treating charcoal in this fashion causes it to become very porous. Porous means holes have been made within the charcoal that expose greater amounts of carbon. This larger surface area allows for more toxins to attach to the exposed areas of carbon. Both gas and liquids can pass through the charcoal and have toxins and contaminants removed by the oxygenated charcoal. This ability to bind itself to substances is 300 times stronger in activated charcoal than regular, more natural forms of charcoal.

Water purification systems use activated charcoal in their filters to remove chemicals and toxins from water as it passes through. Charcoal can also remove organic contaminants as well. As the water flows through the filter, the exposed carbon attracts unwanted substances and keeps them from passing by. The effectiveness of filters made with activated charcoal depend on the source of the calcium itself and how the filter was manufactured. Slow moving filters that allow the water to maintain contact with the charcoal for longer periods of time are more effective than free flowing filters. 

On the medicinal front, activated charcoal is used to remove toxins from medicines and other substances that may cause illness. Activated charcoal is sometimes used to attract and bind certain medications such as morphine and opium if they are consumed in large quantities. It is also able to bind to  certain metals. Silver nitrate, lead salts and mercury are readily attracted to activated charcoal.

Though the use of activated charcoal was primarily used in Europe, the United States has followed suit. It can be used for a variety of digestive disorders including heartburn, dyspepsia and other types of stomach upset. Activated charcoal is sometimes used in cases of poisoning, from both food and other chemicals or medications. Many medications that contain activated charcoal include some type of laxative. This allows the offending substance to pass through the body and be eliminated without doing further damage. It must be remembered though, that activated charcoal will not remove a substance once it has been absorbed by the body. It is only effective on toxins and contaminants that remain in the digestive tract itself. 

Activated charcoal can be found in many health food stores and grocery stores. Always remember to consult a physician before trying an alternative therapy. It could possible affect medications that are currently being taken and render them ineffective.

More about this author: Wendy S. Melton

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