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October 26, 2018 5 min read

Charcoal has been used as a folk remedy as far back as recorded history. North American Indians used charcoal for the treatment of gas pains long before our forefathers came to this continent. Homeopathic physicians have used charcoal throughout the world for more than 200 years. Carbo animalis (animal charcoal) and carbo vegetabilis (wood charcoal) have been carried in the homeopathic pharmacopoeia of the United States with the description that these substances have "marked absorptive power of gases." 

Charcoal has been marketed by Rorer for many years in the prescription drug Chardonna, comprised of phenobarbital, belladonna extract and activated charcoal. It has been used in the treatment of "nervous indigestion, gastritis, and flatulence." Charcoal is rated in Category I (safe and effective) status by the FDA for acute toxic poisoning. Charcoal has been an official remedy in the United States for at least 150 years, and was eliminated from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia around 1950, not because it was ineffective, but because of general disuse in American medicine following the phenomenal growth of the pharmaceutical industry.

"Nobody has fully understood the mechanism by which charcoal works, from either a physical or chemical standpoint. The capillary attraction is felt to be one mechanism, the electrostatic forces another, and perhaps other forces are also involved."

The light and fluffy black powder of charcoal has been used as a medically recognized antidote since the 19th century. It is easy to make by a destructive distillation of organic materials such as wood pulp, petroleum coke, coals, peat, sawdust, wood char, paper mill waste, bone, and coconut shells. Any kind of wood such as willow, eucalyptus, pine, oak, and others are adequate sources of wood charcoal. Charcoals made from vegetable materials such as wood, coconut and coal contain about 90% carbon whereas bone charcoal contains about 11% carbon, 9% calcium carbonate, and 78% calcium phosphate.

PROPERTIES OF CHARCOAL Certain electrostatic properties develop in activated charcoal during production, which favor the binding of most poisons. When the gases, resins, proteins, fats, etc., in wood are burned out, the heat generated and the change in chemistry causes the development of a charge on the charcoal granule which attracts most poisonous substances. Nobody has fully understood the mechanism by which charcoal works, from either a physical or chemical standpoint. The capillary attraction is felt to be one mechanism, the electrostatic forces another, and perhaps other forces are also involved. Charred toast and other scorched food in the kitchen are not healthful, however. They are not charcoal. These represent charred protein, fats, carbohydrates, ·and mineral salts, the very parts burned away in charcoal, leaving only charred cellulose. The skeletal structure remaining in true charcoal is inert, whereas the remaining substances in charred food can react unhealthfully with the body, and even act as cancer-producing agents. Activated charcoal is produced from the controlled burning of wood or bone which is then subjected to the action of an oxidizing gas such as steam or air at elevated temperatures. This process enhances the adsorptive power of charcoal by developing an extensive network of fine pores in the material. The activation process was not invented until after the turn of the 20th century, but charcoal was already recognized as a useful healing agent even though only regular charcoal was then in use. Following activation of charcoal with pressurized steam or strong acid, the surface area of one cubic centimeter is 1000 square meters! This expanded surface is due to the fact that charcoal particles have thousands of crevices, pits, grooves, and holes which, when opened out, make quite a large surface area. The physical and chemical properties from the original material, and the condition of the carbonization process, determine the properties of charcoal. The temperature of carbonization is about 600 degrees C. A hot blaze is maintained for one hour and then reduced to drop the temperature to 100-150 degrees C by leaning the air, which is maintained for days (or only hours if not very wet). Distillation then begins and the temperature rises to 600-700 degrees C. Kilns are closed during this process.

"Following activation of charcoal with pressurized steam or strong acid, the surface area of one cubic centimeter is 1000 square meters! This expanded surface is due to the fact that charcoal particles have thousands of crevices, pits, grooves, and holes which, when opened out, make quite a large surface area."

Tropical forests that have little marketable timber make good charcoal woods--acacia, pinus, hardwoods, eucalyptus and others. Twenty to 30% of the dry weight of wood will represent the yield of charcoal, and about 50% of the volume of wood. Moisture content varies from 1-16%, volatile materials from 7-30%. Retorts yield 25-30% more charcoal than kilns. They have slow carbonization at reduced temperatures giving a higher yield. The yield is greater when wood is cut to uniform size and packed tightly in the retort. In making charcoal, oxygen is taken up rapidly the first few hours after carbonization has ceased. Spontaneous combustion is possible at this point. One might wonder if this is taking up of oxygen, perhaps the unstable ionized form, is one explanation for the remarkable adsorptive property of charcoal. Debarking trees before igniting makes a cleaner and denser final product of charcoal.   AVAILABILITY Charcoal is readily available through commercial channels, but can also be made at home. When making your own charcoal, put pieces of wood in a fireplace or grill, char the wood well, then cut the charred portions from the wood with a sharp knife or machete, grind in a blender to a fine powder and use quite generously in the dosage schedules we recommend. This kind of charcoal must be used in about three to four times larger dosage than the activated charcoal. The ultimate in making your own charcoal begins with a wood fire out of doors. After the wood is burning brightly, it should be covered with a large piece of tin with dirt piled over the tin to make a dome to exclude air. As the heat continues to burn the wood with decreased oxygen, the soft parts of wood are burned out first and the hard parts remain, making a good grade of charcoal. The charred parts of the wood should then be pounded to coarse granules in a cloth bag and ground in a blender to pulverize to a fine powder. Commercial tablets are not as concentrated as charcoal capsules or the charcoal powder, being less effective by about half. In one study, humans took pulverized charcoal powder and prevented absorption of a drug by 73%. Those taking charcoal tablets were able to prevent absorption by only 48%, or roughly half. Tablets are made from regular charcoal and the pulverized powder is usually activated. Also about one-quarter of the tablet is starch material and other substances used to hold the tablets together. For tablets, chewing well is essential before swallowing to increase their effectiveness. Briquettes for grilling food are not safe sources for either external or internal use, as various fillers and chemicals are applied to hold the charcoal together and to insure rapid igniting. GENERAL NON-MEDICAL USES OF CHARCOAL
  • Fuel savings in blast furnaces.
  • Soot clearance
  • Foundry work
  • Top dressings for gardens, bowling greens and lawns
  • Potting and bedding compounds
  • Prevention of water pollution
  • Sweeteners of the soil, mulch
  • Fertilizer and insecticide for roses
  • Water filtration
  • Adsorption of pesticides and herbicides

-Thrash, A. MD & Thrash, C., MD (1988), Charcoal, Chapter 2. Reprinted with permission.