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Clean Air


How does black charcoal make even invisible air more pure? In this issue of CharcoalTimes we look at how charcoal gets rid of odors, good, bad, and ugly, so we can all breathe a little easier. Whether you are an astronaut tumbling through outer space or a submariner gliding below the ocean depths, the one thing you will be completely dependent on is a adequate supply of activated charcoal. On the other hand if you are busily shopping in the ultimate mall, painting cars in a detail shop, or performing laser surgery in a state of the art hospital, you too will want to be sure the air systems are charged with activated charcoal.


Dirty Charcoal
But first, let’s get to the dirty part. Conventional methods of making charcoal are a great polluter. So much so that all production of charcoal in China in 2008 was shut down for the Olympic Games because of all the visitors and media that would be spotlighting the event. Older methods are taking a big change for the better. Highly efficient pyrolisis plants are now able to convert raw material into high grade charcoal without pumping volumes of smoke into the atmosphere. This is being driven both by public pressure, governmental regulations, and the bottom dollar. Money talks. The new Pyrolisis Plants are able to use otherwise wasted gases to generate valuable electricity, bio fuels, or fertilizers, and sell “green” credits on the ever-growing “green” market. While this technology is rapidly coming on stream, unfortunately much of the raw charcoal is still produced in primitive areas. The destruction of forests for the production of charcoal dates back to the Iron Age but is still a cause of concern today. We will leave that issue to another article. But here also, improved technology is now using natural waste products that were often a great problem to dispose of: coconut shells, pecan and other nut shells, corn stover, saw dust, etc. Bamboo, which is such an easy renewable resource, is also a popular source of charcoal. But on to activated charcoal as a premium air purifier.


Wound Odors

Historically charcoal was first used to control wound odors. Charcoal powder was sprinkled directly on foul putrefying wounds as far back as 1500 BC. In the 1850s British surgeon James Bird reported that charcoal was routinely used in military, naval and civil hospitals to control wound odors, among other applications. Today that application is still widely used.


For those of you who have suffered a broken limb that required a hard cast to immobilize it, you are no doubt familiar with the bad odor that develops. Most often the smell is just from dead skin, but it may be from an open draining wound. These odors are not only unpleasant, they are themselves toxic, and they slow the healing process. This requires that the casts be changed often. To avoid such frequent changes, Dr. Frank Haydon, MD, at Fort Benning, Georgia, developed a simple technique. He took fifteen grams of activated charcoal (about one to two tablespoons) and mixed it with enough water to make a slurry. After the first layer of cast was applied, the charcoal slurry was then poured over the area of expected drainage. The remainder of the plaster was then applied over this wet charcoal. The cast appeared slightly gray, but was accepted well by patients. The unpleasant odor of draining wounds was controlled for much longer, and there were no adverse effect on wound or fracture.


The doctors Thrash relate this case of an overdose of X-rays:

“We had a patient who had a large, deep ulcer (twelve inches in diameter) due to an x-ray burn on his back. The burn was from an overdose of x-rays used for treating a skin cancer. The ulcer became infected and foul smelling. His entire house smelled of the ulcer, despite the most fastidious care. We started dressing the ulcer by sprinkling dry charcoal from a saltshaker on all the moist areas before applying gauze. Instantly the odor vanished from the ulcer, and gradually left the house. Although the patient eventually succumbed to the radiation sickness, he and his whole family were grateful for the charcoal.”


The prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet (9/13/1980), reported this exciting study. In varicose leg ulcers and in infected surgical wounds, a single layer of charcoal cloth covered with a porous fabric sleeve dressing gave a noticeable reduction in wound odor in 95% of 39 patients. Wound cleansing was also noted in 80% of the patients. There were no adverse reactions to the material. The dressings did not stick to the wounds and could be removed without difficulty. Because the human skin allows for the transfer of liquids, gasses and even micro-particles through its permeable membrane and pores, it was also shown that warm, moist activated charcoal poultices were actually able to draw bacteria and poisons through the skin and into the poultice. The Complete Handbook of Medicinal Charcoal pp 148 - 150


Gas Odors

Charcoal was employed in the 1800s to control city sewer odors. Today, specialized city manhole covers include a cavity filled with activated charcoal to do the same job. What about very confined self-contained spaces? Whether on board the space station or nuclear submarines, activated charcoal is used to filter and refilter and refilter and refilter used air and make it breathable once more.


Activated charcoal (aka Activated Carbon) really came into prominence during WWI with is use in gas masks to neutralize the deadly Mustard gas. It was coconut shell charcoal that was chosen then and it is coconut charcoal that is still used in so many air/vapor applications today. But while charcoal takes out hundreds of different volatile compounds it does not filter out small particulate matter. HEPA filters were developed to trap microscopic particles, and together with activated charcoal, are the Rolls Royce of air filters.


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 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 1940s 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.

Are you looking for a good filter for your new Rolls Royce? It uses granular activated charcoal. How about the best vacuum, the best breathing mask, the most efficient furnace filter, or air purifier? If it does not include a HEPA filter with activated charcoal, then keep looking.


With more and more exposure to thousands of new, yet unregulated chemicals, whether in public schools, hospitals, beauty salons, or factories, more and more children and adults are becoming sensitized to very low levels of air contamination. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are not just in the head. More and more people are actively defending their homes and bodies against these chemicals. New technology and old charcoal are once again working to make breathing for many less of a struggle.


Charcoal Face Masks

Activated Charcoal Cloth (ACC) masks let you breathe inside when breathing outside is unpleasant, obnoxious or down right unhealthy. Smoke and smog, fragrance chemicals and baby diapers, beauty salons and airplane air, diesel fumes and hospital laser plume, cow barns and photo labs, from downtown LA to Khatmandu, these fit-in-your pocket face masksgive instant breathable relief.


Leaving on a jet plane, heading out into rush hour traffic, visiting sick friends, why not tuck one of these Face Masks (with activated charcoal nano-technology) into your travel kit, glove compartment, or purse. Activated Charcoal works in military chemical masks, NIOSH respirators, commercial smoke eaters, and it works in the new generation of lighrt ACC masks too!!


Air Purifiers

Whether to capture laser plume or anesthesia gases in operating rooms, clearing the smoke from restaurants, smoke shops, or bars, or sucking up solvents and hair sprays in esthetician and beauty salons, activated charcoal air purifiers are the clear answer if… If they actually use enough activated charcoal so that the air has sufficient contact time with the charcoal for it to grab all those odors/chemicals before they are blown back out into the room. That means more than a couple ounces or couple pounds of activated charcoal. How much? Well if you don’t want to be changing out the charcoal every month or two then you need upwards of 15 pounds or more of high grade Granular Activated Charcoal (GAC) not Powder Activated Charcoal (PAC).


Air Purifiers that use a few ounces of PAC impregnated filters are useless. What size GAC? A Mesh Size of 4x8 is the most common. On the other hand the Mesh Size in cigarettes filters is 20x50 because there is so little contact time with the charcoal that the particles need to be smaller (which makes you suck harder???). You will want to consider how much air is the Air Purifier circulating per hour (CFM - cubic feet per minute), the size of area it is designed for, speed options, and noise level. Also do you want to have to replace the charcoal with expensive sealed filters or do you want to be able to just dump out the spent charcoal (into your compost, garden or flowerbeds) and refill the canister with inexpensive loose bulk charcoal? Lastly, what is the carbon tetrachloride (CTC) number of the activated charcoal – the higher the better. A CTC of 55 is good. Over 100 is very good. Coconut charcoal is preferable, it is the most hypoallergenic and has the longest history for air and vapor filtration.



Enough research is in to show that turning Biochar (the new term for renewable raw charcoal) back into the soil has a dramatic effect on greenhouse gases by sequestering carbon in the soil. It is estimated a 640-acre farm could retain the equivalent of 1,800 tons of carbon dioxide in the soil. That's the annual emissions created by about 340 cars.


Animal feed lots and livestock factory farms battle public pressure on many fronts, not least being knock-you-off-your-feet odor. Some savvy farmers mix charcoal powder into pig manure pits, spread it over manure piles, or in the livestock feed itself, to control odor.


And More…

What about stomach gas, flatulence, feminine odors, pet odors, car odors, fridge odors, gym bags and stinking shoes, paint booths, vegetable oil reclamation sites, granaries, …? There is an activated charcoal product designed for each one.


Is it not incredible that the lowly charcoal (carbon) can do so much, and just keeps on keeping on, even after it has finished its main objective? No mindless operation of chance there - unless you call space stations, nuclear submarines and HEPA filters mere random combinations of atoms!