Monday, October 18, 2010

Medical Mondays: Charcoal, not Oreos


Welcome to Medical Mondays, where medical facts for the purposes of fiction are discussed ad nauseum and my readers are left only slightly vertiginous.

Today, as adjunct to last week's post on methanol poisoning, I discuss the use of charcoal as an antidote.

Way back in medical school, I remember making my way through the ER and noticing a sickly looking young man with suspicious black smears around his mouth. He looked like he'd just eaten a plate of Oreo cookies with his hands tied behind his back. I asked the senior resident what was going on.

"Overdose. He just finished his activated charcoal slurry."

Ah. Not Oreos. (Though I'm certain Oreo cookies are highly effective antidotes for some things. The munchies, for one. And lonely glasses of milk.)

Charcoal is the result when wood (usually) is heated in the absence of air and incompletely burned. Obviously, it can then be used as a fuel, but its got a lot of other uses, such as in filtration (it's in my aquarium filter right now, and probably in your Britta filter at home).

Medicinally, it has been consumed for centuries to aid in digestion and to adsorb (not a typo—that's aDsorb, which means molecules stick to it) toxins and poisons.

Red colobus monkeys have been known to eat charcoal to help with their digestive ailments, since their leafy diet is high in cyanide.

Charcoal biscuits were available in 19th century England for flatulance and stomach problems.

Activated charcoal is charcoal that's been treated to make it extremely porous and therefore give it a huge amount of surface area for adsorption. One gram of activated charcoal has the surface area of 500 square meters. That's a lot of room on which toxins can bind.

I could imagine reading a scene where burnt wood was eaten after fear of being poisoned. That would be quite a MacGyver move in a book, wouldn't it?

Please keep in mind this post is for writing purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice! (See sidebar disclaimer)

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55 comments:

Slamdunk said...

"Charcoal biscuits" that just does not sound appealing.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

wow. amazing.I would've thought eating charcoal would make someone sick.

Carol Kilgore said...

I hope I never have to find out what charcoal tastes like.

Jessica Bell said...

Wow! Very interesing. Nope, never ever even occured to me that it charcoal could be medicinal. Good to know! :o)

Laura Pauling said...

Sounds like something for Bear Grylls!

Jaydee Morgan said...

This is a little nugget of information I'm going to tuck away - love Medical Mondays!

Mason Canyon said...

Always learn something unique and interesting here. I agree, that would be a great MacGyver move.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Amazing. I can see it in a zombie movie. Zombies eating charcoal like M & M's when human flesh isn't available.

Thanks for the great insightful post, Lydia. Wish me luck today. I go off to see the surgeon to see how much "fun" the next six weeks are going to be for me!

May your Monday be better than mine, Roland

Faith said...

Oh wow... so a person could seriously use charcoal as an antidote to poison?! That's fascinating! And a little tidbit that I'll tuck away... I have someone being poisoned in this year's NaNoWriMo novel, so I'll keep this in mind...!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Charcoal is very unappealing, Lydia. But I love the monday posts, so I keep coming back for more.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Charcoal is very unappealing, Lydia. But I love the monday posts, so I keep coming back for more.

Deb Salisbury said...

Cool! I can use this in my pre-industrial fantasy world.

Bookmarked. Thanks!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Adsorb and charcoal-eating monkeys. I learn the most fascinating things from you! But eating burnt wood? I hope the character lets it cool waaay down. :)

Bathwater said...

It taste awful.

Munk said...

Some of the most effective "activated carbon" or "charcoal" medium comes from coconut husks... I've never tried it, but I doubt it is any tastier than wood.

Colene Murphy said...

cool! I never fully understood WHY charcoal was used. But that explains it and its neat!

Talli Roland said...

Interesting - I'd heard of charcoal but I had no idea exacrly what it was used for in hospitals! The thought of drinking it is grossing me out!

Jennee said...

I forgot about the whole charcoal thing but it is a good thing to keep in the back of my mind...for fiction of course.

Elle Strauss said...

Once again, I learn something new here! Thanks!

notesfromnadir said...

Thanks for this, Lydia. Oreos and a lonely glass of milk -- great combo!

I've seen charcoal being used in toothpaste and in soap. But I had no idea that monkeys ate it because of their cyanide consumption!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Easting charcoal sounds unpleasant!

lbdiamond said...

Great post! Yeah, I hope I never have to eat charcoal. Yuck.

Melissa said...

That sounds utterly unpleasant! But you've just given me the solution I've been looking for for something in my book! I love you so much right now.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It has been way too long since I popped over on Medical Monday!! You are still brilliant! :-)

Giles Hash said...

That's useful...and I could see it used as a possible red herring for a mystery novel. Maybe someone died from an injection, but the killer used charcoal to make it look like a suicide-with-second-thoughts-gone-wrong.

Hmmm...creative juices are flowing...

Amanda Sablan said...

Very interesting; I did not know this about charcoal. Where can I buy flavored charcoal then?

Phoenix said...

So, wait, what? You can use charcoal to stop a drug overdose? Really?!

Karen Lange said...

Okay, so I'll choose Oreos over charcoal, but this is interesting! Thanks a bunch:)

Robyn Campbell said...

Love your medical Monday. Thanks loads. And Oreos sound MUCH better than charcoal. ICK

Susan Fields said...

Great information - thanks, Lydia!

Tina Laurel Lee said...

I love the word slurry! It makes it sound sort of delicious. But yet, I bet it is not at all.

Jai Joshi said...

I knew that charcoal was in some water filters but I didn't know that people used to eat charcoal to clean out their stomachs. That's so interesting...

Jai

Holly Ruggiero said...

Charcoal biscuits? That’s wild. Interesting post.

The Red Angel said...

Interesting post. I am truly enjoying your weekly Medical Monday posts. Learn something new every time. xD

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Clarissa Draper said...

Wow, cool post. I love the MacGyver reference.

CD

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Now I have a strong craving for Oreos. :p

The Words Crafter said...

See, I have to wonder who found out it would work in the first place...

Cool info about its past usage. Thanks for posting it!

Belle said...

I've only ever used charcoal for drawing! Great image of the Oreo/charcoal smears - it would be so interesting to see something like that in a scene in a book.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Fascinating! I've heard something like this before but you explain it so clearly. I'm trying to wrap my head around one gram of charcoal having the surface area of 500 sq meters! Whoa!

Mad props to the people who discover these things!

Jemi Fraser said...

Can I just say 'ewwwwww' to the charcoal biscuits! Yuck!!

I seem to remember someone way back in high school being forced to drink some charcoal-type substance because they feared alcohol poisoning. Maybe.... :)

Deni Krueger said...

Sounds like it would be about as appetizing as picking up a dirt clod and shoving it in my mouth. Though the best medicine never tastes great.

Deni Krueger said...

Sounds like it would be about as appetizing as picking up a dirt clod and shoving it in my mouth. Though the best medicine never tastes great.

Paul C said...

What interesting medical anecdotes you provide. Activated charcoal scooping up toxins is most captivating.

Robyn Campbell said...

Lydia, sent your prize off today. I appreciate your patience. My computer got a virus from someone on FB and I lost EVERYTHING. Family pics, most of my writing, my microsoft office (though I reinstalled that), EVERYTHING gone. I kept saying I would back everything up. Now I will, but it's too late for my precious photos and writing.

Anyway, thanks for entering and enjoy.

Elana Johnson said...

Definitely not Oreos. Great post!

Krispy said...

Wow, that's fascinating, though I imagine it doesn't taste that great...

Emy (Sandy) Shin said...

Oh, I totally didn't know this! Thank you for sharing this awesome fact. :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Fascinating post, as always! Thanks, Lydia!!

Laura Pauling said...

Hi Lydia,
An email from you got deleted from my spam. I think it was titled August win? You'll have to resend. Sorry. :)

laurapauling@yahoo.com

Clara said...

WOA I loved this post! I had no idea of the awesome effects of charcoal! I mean, to help against poisoning? Wow!
Great post!

Anonymous said...
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Solvang Sherrie said...

Very cool! Does this mean that my burned toast actually has medicinal benefits? :)

Lydia Kang said...

Actually, burnt food can be carcinogenic! So I wouldn't recommend it for medicinal purposes in your daily life!

Jonene Ficklin said...

Wow, thanks! I expect charcoal treatments to pop up in all the books that are published a year from now : )

DEZMOND said...

there were even charcoal biscuits?? How interesting :)
Nice post, Lyds!

 
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