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Activated carbon protects us from a toxic environment

There is a saying that says: "We should be grateful that God has given us a microscopic black hole that can swallow away the poisoning created by human narrow-mindedness." We will take a closer look at the main points in this proverb. How is coal used to counteract poisoning and decay in a historical perspective, and what does science say today.

The element carbon

Carbon is an element that appears in several forms: diamond, graphite and coal. In the noble diamond and the practical graphite (pencil), the carbon atoms are organized in a crystalline structure. The carbon in coal, on the other hand, is porous. Kull has a large network of nooks, crannies and nooks and crannies. Together, all the cavities represent an enormous internal surface.

What is activated charcoal

The charcoal is activated when it is exposed to water vapor under high temperatures and in the absence of oxygen. The process dramatically strengthens the pore structure: 3 grams of activated carbon has an inner surface equivalent to a football pitch. A carbon filter of 150 grams has a surface area of as many as 50 football pitches. The surface is active, not passive - hence the name activated charcoal/carbon. The coal attracts impurities like a magnet attracts iron filings. An active carbon filter therefore protects us in two ways: It attracts toxins purely energetically, while the finely meshed network of pores in the carbon block acts as a mechanical sieve for impurities.

A fine mesh strainer

For surface water to become groundwater, it must pass through layer upon layer of soil and gravel. Finally, it ends up as clean groundwater far below the earth's surface. Fortunately, it finds its way back up to wells and springs. Groundwater has provided humans and animals with clean drinking water for millennia. Water is also filtered for impurities as it flows through the infinite network of pores in a carbon filter.

How small particles are captured depends on how fine the mesh/pores are. In a carbon filter, the pore size is stated in microns. A micron is one thousandth of a millimeter. A standard 10 micron carbon filter has a pore size of 10 thousandths of a millimeter. The finest carbon filters have a pore diameter of less than 0.5 thousandths of a millimetre. Activated charcoal therefore captures a large range of particles in the water, including microplastics and fine particulate matter, which in water tests have the collective term turbidity.

An active surface

Although the meshes in a strainer are microscopic and measured in thousandths of a millimetre, they are not enough to capture chemical toxins that are dissolved in the water. We are talking about molecules that are measured in nanometers, which is one millionth of a millimeter. It is therefore important that the carbon has an active attractive force on the smallest substances it comes into contact with. Many substances in nature have an active or energetically attractive force on other substances. The special thing about activated carbon is that the total surface force becomes very large due to the enormous internal surface that the porous carbon has. The activated carbon attracts chemical compounds on a molecular level. The toxins in water are captured when they flow through the carbon filter. The phenomenon is called adsorption. It is similar to absorption, but that term is reserved for the attractive force of liquids and gases on other substances. When solid substances absorb other substances, we speak of adsorption.

The minerals that occur as atoms in the water are not attractive enough for the carbon to be captured. We need them for the body's mineral balance. Chemical toxins are larger and have a different molecular structure – they do not escape the active carbon so easily. Neither are heavier elements such as the heavy metals.

Highly valued since ancient times

The ancient Egyptians and Sumerians discovered early on that charcoal has a preservative effect. Ground coal was mixed with moist sand to prevent the timber structures along the banks of the Nile from rotting. Charcoal was used to preserve dead bodies. They were buried in a mixture of sand and charcoal, and charcoal was included in the embalming. Old merchant ships stored their drinking water in wooden barrels lined with charcoal. It helped keep the water fresh.

The fact that coal counteracted putrefaction and bad odor gained early medical importance. Old Egyptian scrolls tell of use in wound care and in case of poor intestinal health. Medical greats such as Hippocrates (400 BC), Pliny (50 AD) and Galen (130 AD) referred to the use of charcoal in their medical practice.

Pliny wrote that the coal must first be ignited and then extinguished to be medicinally effective. It was a discovery that manufacturers of activated carbon use to this day. The method was perfected and systematized at the end of the 19th century. From then on, medical journals began to report on the use of activated charcoal in case of poisoning, and beyond the 20th century it was used in most modern hospitals.

Today, there is a wide range of different brands of medicinal activated charcoal both in capsule and tablet form. In foreign online shops it is sold as "char coal". Pharmacies recommend charcoal tablets against poisoning from medicines, plant poisons, fungal poisons and other substances, such as e.g. rat poison. Some people use activated charcoal as extra travel insurance on trips to southern regions with foreign bacterial cultures, in bowel cleansing cures or to combat hangovers. Others use activated charcoal in face masks to draw out impurities from the skin.

Neutralizes environmental toxins

Researchers at Michigan State University have tested how activated charcoal can neutralize the effects of environmental toxins in food. In the study, which was published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, they chose the strongest poison among the dioxins: a group of over 200 by-products from industrial production. Long-term exposure to dioxins increases the risk of cancer, reproductive disorders, weakens the immune system and is neurotoxic - like other environmental toxins. In the experiment, the effect of 3 protective substances was compared: silicon, bentonite clay and activated carbon. All were added to a cooking oil that was mixed with the toxic dioxin. Only the mice that ingested the poison mixture together with activated carbon showed no signs of dioxin poisoning. The researchers behind the study claim that activated carbon can also be of great importance for cleaning contaminated topsoil.

Do we need to purify the drinking water

In a project carried out by the Food Safety Authority for Midt-Rogaland for the Norwegian Food Safety Authority (SNT), water purification equipment for household purposes on the Norwegian market was surveyed in 2001. Around 275 filter-based water purifiers for connection to water mains were surveyed. The report recognizes that there may be a desire for filtration to improve smell and taste, and that filtration may be necessary due to acidic water that corrodes/precipitates metals from water pipes (low pH can be detected in most places in Norway due to acidic surface water in the water supply).

The author Niels Chr Geelmuyden received a lot of attention in 2015 for the book Sannheten i glasset. He writes that in Norway, residues of glyphosate were detected in 89 per cent of the water samples in streams and rivers. He is critical of the authorities choosing to remove glyphosate from the search spectrum rather than continuing to measure the occurrences of this controversial pesticide. It is the most widely used in Norway and consumption has increased by 300 per cent in 20 years. The number of cross-border discoveries of pesticides in Norwegian groundwater wells increased by 50 per cent from 2007 to 2012.

In recent times, new issues have emerged such as microplastics, which according to a survey by VG were found in 8 out of 10 Norwegian drinking water sources. The Norwegian Environment Agency expresses concern about this. Microplastics are small plastic particles in the environment that range in size from 5 millimeters (5000 micrometres) down to 1 thousandth of a millimeter (1 micron). A 5 micron standard filter will therefore remove over 99% of the entire spectrum of microplastic particles.

Safe and good drinking water is the responsibility of the public authorities. There are strict guidelines for the permitted content of impurities, where limit values are specified in the drinking water regulations, which you can find at Many years of emissions and pollution in a society characterized by use and disposal still make it more demanding for the authorities to guarantee clean air and clean water today. In contrast to 50 and 100 years ago where the environment was less polluted. In several parts of the world, the authorities no longer guarantee safe drinking water. Seen in this light, it can be an extra insurance to let the tap water run through an active carbon filter before drinking it.

Documented effect

The effect of activated carbon to isolate toxic substances is well documented. A search of the world's largest medical database lists over 16,000 studies. Activated carbon filters are the only ones recommended by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove 32 known environmental toxins, including benzene, dioxins and DDT. Although many of them have long been banned, they still remain in soil and water due to their long half-life. The EPA lists 14 pesticides and 12 herbicides where activated carbon has a good effect.

The addition of chlorine is widespread in the world where drinking water must be disinfected. The effect lies in chlorine's strong reactivity, which is also destructive to bacteria. An unfortunate side effect is that chlorine also reacts in the body, forming harmful compounds when it reacts with organic material such as humus in the water. They are referred to as Thrihalomethanes and are widely tested for in drinking water samples. Activated carbon filter effectively removes chlorine and their decomposition products. Activated carbon also removes copper from old water pipes, significantly reducing the presence of heavy metals.

Which filter should you choose?

The most sold active filters are so-called "CTO-grade" carbon filters, where C stands for chlorine, T for taste (taste) and O for odor (smell). It is the improvement or removal of these parameters that the filter manufacturers guarantee. Filter pores of 10 microns (0.01 mm) are widely used. Finer pores, such as 5 microns (0.005 mm) provide better filtration. The finer the filter, the better the filtering properties, and the greater the job the filter does in capturing impurities. Finer filters must therefore be changed more frequently than more coarse-grained filters. Filters with pore sizes in the range of 0.5 to 5 microns should be replaced 2 – 4 times a year.

The finest carbon filters have pore sizes down to 0.45 microns. Quality manufacturers of such offer good documentation on the removal of bacteria, molds and other microbes, as well as drug residues, pesticides, aphid poisons and heavy metals. Serious tests are based on use throughout the filter's lifetime, up to 6 months and a total filtered water quantity of 10,000 liters of water. Then you can drink more than 50 liters a day, which is otherwise not recommended.

The production process

All sources that have a high content of natural carbon, such as wood and coal, can be used in the production of carbon filters. But the carbon must be "activated". The carbon is then exposed to high temperatures of up to 900 degrees, in contact with a gas and in the absence of air/oxygen. Choose a manufacturer that does not use chemicals in the activation process - only heat and steam.

The best quality carbon block is achieved when the fine-grained and activated carbon powder is compressed by a high-tech shaping process called sintering. It provides a perfectly structured filter consisting of a finely meshed network of activated carbon with uniform pore sizes.

Several manufacturers now make activated carbon filters from coconut shells – a by-product from the production of coconut oil. It is now experiencing a renaissance in the Western world. The filter made from it is recyclable, while carbonized coconut shell is known to give a "crispy" and good aftertaste to the water.

Our good protector now as before

We opened with a wise saying that "we should be grateful that God has given us a microscopic black hole that can swallow away the poisoning created by man's narrow-mindedness." Many will in any case agree with parts of this picture: That in the pursuit of increased material prosperity we have committed many abuses against the earth's creatures and the environment. A new consciousness must grow to create a sustainable society that can exist without poisoning the environment. The popular involvement in saving the planet has become greater and more genuine, and clearly visible among the youngest.

At the same time, we must protect ourselves as best we can against all the pollution we have already created. There is a lot of good experience and documentation that activated charcoal has a unique ability to absorb toxins and neutralize bad smells. We can still rely on carbon: For medicinal use, to counteract putrefaction and adsorb poisons that have escaped into the stomach. And we can trust that it cleans tap water, which comes from polluted rivers and groundwater, as well as from old water pipes that could use an overhaul.


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