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The Air We Breathe

Never mind under the ocean or out in space, what about the air right around us? How can charcoal make breathing easier?

In Chapter 4 we reviewed charcoal’s historical use for heating and cooking. Using lump charcoal does have advantages over briquettes. It is an all-natural, one hundred percent hardwood product, without the additives that are used to make briquettes. Natural charcoal heats faster than briquettes, so food can be cooked over natural charcoal as soon as it begins generating heat, usually within five to seven minutes after lighting it. Because there are no binders, lump charcoal can be lit with just a match and a piece of newspaper. This eliminates the need for lighter fluid, the burning of which can impart taste to food.

The fact that natural charcoal can be easily ignited allows users to start with a small amount and add to the pile, as more heat is needed. Natural charcoal can be smothered by closing off the air supply or putting it out with water, then reused at a later time. Finally, hard-wood charcoal producers generally claim that natural hardwood charcoal retains heat longer than briquette charcoal, and that it is a more efficient fuel: one pound of hardwood charcoal produces heat roughly equivalent to two pounds of briquette charcoal.

These facts will probably not mean much to the average North American, unless they live on barbequed food. However, much of the world cooks with charcoal, and it is a good thing. It is a far cleaner fuel than plain wood, charcoal briquette, or coal, which means fewer pollutants, and cleaner air.

But, for the majority of us, as far as the air we breathe is concerned, the benefits of charcoal go far beyond what we barbeque with. Charcoal is working behind the scenes, cleaning up most of the air we pollute, not just outside around chemical and steel plants, but right inside our homes!

HEPA Filters
Today, just as we have an array of different charcoal water filters, so too, we have at least as many variations of charcoal air filters. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, the Rolls Royce of charcoal filters, are the highest efficiency air filters available for the filtration of small particles. Defined by the Institute of Environmental Science, a certified HEPA filter must capture a minimum of 99.97% of contaminants at 0.3 microns in size. The first HEPA filters were developed in the 1940’s by the US Atomic Energy Commission to fulfill a top-secret need for an efficient, effective way to filter radioactive particulate contaminants. They were needed as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. HEPA filter technology was declassified after World War II and then manufactured for commercial and residential use.

HEPA air filters have been traditionally used in hospital operating and isolation rooms, in the pharmaceutical industry and in the manufacture of computer chips, as well as in other applications requiring ‘Absolute’ filtration. Today HEPA air cleaners, vacuum cleaners and air filters are used in a wide variety of critical filtration applications in the nuclear, electronic, aerospace, pharmaceutical and medical fields. They are required by law to be used in all equipment for asbestos elimination.
Filters that meet the strict Military Standard 282 HEPA filtration efficiency test are highly recommended for allergy and asthma sufferers. This efficiency rating means that the filtration systems are capable of removing those harmful particles, including dust, mold spores, dust mites, pet dander, and plant fibers that are the cause of many allergy symptoms. HEPA filters can even trap deadly Anthrax spores.

Another benefit of a HEPA air filtration system is that it can remove harmful V.O.C.’s (Volatile Organic Compounds). These gases come from household chemicals and synthetic materials. HEPA filters are also advertised as helping to remove over one thousand identified indoor air pollutants, of which at least sixty are carcinogenic. These can build to dangerous levels in today’s tighter, more energy efficient buildings.

Activated charcoal is used in waste incinerators in a city near you. Many new cars use charcoal as the main ingredient in their air circulation filters. But this is nothing new. In 1854, Stenhouse described the successful application of carbon filters for removing vapors and gases in the ventilation of London sewers.

You can make good use of that bit of history right in your home. If you don’t want to buy a commercial product, just take a five-pound bag of charcoal, put half in a container with a perforated top, and place it in your fridge. Place the other half in your freezer for seven days. Odors will leave never to return!

I found this recommendation on the Internet. “When my friend put her house contents into storage, the woman in charge of the unit told her to put an opened five pound bag of charcoal near her furniture. She also told her to change it every six months. Apparently, the charcoal absorbs the odors and also the dampness in the air. Her furniture still smelled sweet after three years in storage. Hope this helps.” Signed, Bob. Of course, the same can be done for closets, crawl spaces, and basements.

As for odors from domestic animals, just sprinkle charcoal on pet areas outside, include it in the cat litter box, or use it to soak up the tell tale remains of a skunk visit. Perhaps you have had one take up residence under one of your buildings, but, long after you have removed the skunk, its calling card is still around. It is reported that a liberal sprinkling of charcoal powder will make quick work of any lingering odors.

Operating rooms
Offensive odors come from all manner of sources, but no matter what brand, activated charcoal loves them all. However, some smells are ‘invisible’ to us. Operating rooms, whether medical or veterinarian, often have free-floating anesthetic gases lurking around. No one wants surgeons or their assistants to be dozing off. So, the bulk of these gases drifting around in the operating rooms are grabbed up by scavenging filter systems developed to remove them. As well, canisters containing activated charcoal are used as waste-gas disposal systems in lieu of other types of scavenging systems, especially when portability is an issue. For operating room personnel who are at special risk (e.g., pregnant), some institutions do issue masks with activated charcoal filters.  

Laser plume
Lasers in surgical settings are notorious for producing copious amounts of noxious smoke or plume as a by-product of vaporization. It has been proven that laser smoke contains both dead and live cellular material and viruses. Several hazardous contaminants and by-products have been identified. Because of the extreme temperatures used, vaporized particles from the destruction of the cell wall, become airborne. Some have been identified as intact cells, cell parts, blood cells, and viral DNA fragments. You can see the potential for infection.

Potentially toxic chemicals are also known by-products of laser smoke. Researchers have identified more than six hundred organic compounds in plume generated by vaporized tissue. For many of these compounds, there are harmful side effects including irritation to the eyes, nose, and respiratory tract; liver and kidney damage; carcinogenic cell changes; headaches; dizziness; drowsiness; stomach pains; vomiting and nausea; and rapid breathing. But, here too, charcoal is being used as a filtering system to minimize exposure to these potential health hazards.

Industrial waste
Those looking to get into environmental research and development will find that filter-grade charcoal is a fast expanding market. Calgon Carbon of Pittsburgh is one of the world’s largest producers of activated charcoal. The company continues to show yearly gains in annual sales. One of the most important growth markets for filtered charcoal is with municipalities. Cities use filtered charcoal to remove chemicals, heavy metals, and other materials from the leachate from landfills. But there are larger problems.

Here, where I live in Nova Scotia, is home to the infamous Sydney Tar Ponds, the waste dump for the once thriving steel and coke industry. It is, for the moment, North America's largest toxic waste site. A cool two billion dollars have been allocated for its clean up. The project is touted as becoming the protocol for all future major toxic site clean-ups. But there are other sites, including Washington’s Hanford nuclear waste site, New York’s Hudson River, with other major waste sites-in-waiting, including Wisconsin’s Mole Lake mine.

What I found disturbing, as I searched the various environmental groups’ websites, was that virtually the only references to charcoal had to do with barbecue events. How is it, I wondered, that these bastions of environmental activism, make little to no mention on their sites of the wonders of the single greatest detoxifier in the world’s history? Are they too so un-informed? The only allusion to charcoal’s purifying nature was a brief mention by environmentalist John Muir in his book Steep Trails. “I found about a bucketful [of stagnant water] in a granite bowl, but it was full of leaves and beetles, making a sort of brown coffee that could be rendered available [drinkable] only by filtering it through sand and charcoal.  This I resolved to do in case the night came on before I found better.” I am not surprised when charcoal is overlooked by the general public, but it seems the environmental educators also need a seminar on the powerful virtues of charcoal.

Meanwhile, the Belgian steel producer, Sidmar, part of ARCELOR, the largest steel group in the world, won the Belgian Environmental Prize in 2002 for its substantial reduction in dioxin emissions using a new purification technology. This technology is based on the injection of activated charcoal into the released flue gases, causing the dioxins in the gases to be adsorbed...