An easy thirty-five years ago, children were playing in a rural yard in Central Florida. Before they were all done, the innocent play turned potentially deadly. A snake had bitten the heel of one child and apparently slithered away before it could be identified.
Typically, venom must first be tested to determine what course of action to take. Meanwhile, the entire leg would likely begin to swell. But in this case, a wise old lady prepared a charcoal poultice and applied it where the child had been bitten. The mother was certain that course saved her son.
That was my introduction to the term activated charcoal. I had never even heard of it before. But soon I had my own supply and have since made it an essential part of my personal first aid kit. I had determined if it can save a child from a snake bite, then it will be my first choice for lesser poisonous bites: bee stings, mosquito bites, and for any other unidentifiable critter bites.
Just out of curiosity, one day I asked an EMT what course would be taken if he encountered a person who was poisoned. He quickly answered that activated charcoal would be administered. I was very surprised. Knowing back then that ipecac was the norm, I asked why charcoal rather than ipecac. His matter-of-fact response really shocked me. He said that for ipecac to work successfully, it would have to be ingested first, then the poison.
What!!??!! Well, that makes no sense. Even today, thirty years later, it is hard to wrap my brain around that.
I wondered how it ever came to be standard practice for EMTs and still is advisable for emergency use. Or is it? There seems to be conflicting information as to its current use, even its continued production.
The syrup is an emetic; it induces vomiting typically within 20 to 30 minutes. Yet, “very little poison is removed.” For that reason and because of its potential risks and complications, including death, a Wikipedia article claims, “It is no longer used in medicine.” Mayo Clinic, however, identifies it as “an emergency treatment for certain kinds of poisoning.” Immediately afterward, multiple warnings concerning its use are offered.
To further complicate matters, the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations claims “ipecac syrup is considered the emetic of choice.” The page, last updated 1/17/2023, adds that every year “about 500,000 accidental poisonings occur in the United States and result in approximately 1,500 deaths, of which over 400 are children.” And although they admit controversy over its over-the-counter availability, they unanimously concluded amounts up to 1 ounce may be readily available for in-home emergency use only after securing professional medical advice. They claim that it is the “consensus of informed medical opinion that ipecac syrup should be used only under medical supervision in the emergency treatment of poisonings.”
Further still, the World Health Organization lists activated charcoal, but not syrup of ipecac, as an essential most-effective antidote, safe for nonspecific poisonings. Why then, would the FDA issue a warning letter against the sale and use of activated charcoal? I have a thought or two about that.
Nevertheless, DrAxe.com has a full article detailing the Top 10 uses for activated charcoal. While they acknowledge that there is “confusion and skepticism out there about its safety and efficacy, activated charcoal that comes from a natural source,” they say, “is not only safe, but effective for promoting detoxification.” For that reason, they say that it is being used in trauma centers worldwide.
In a clear and easy-to-understand layout, DrAxe.com provides instruction for using activated charcoal for dental health, to reduce gassiness, for cleaning mold, for filtering water, addressing toxic overload, bug bites, snake and spider bites, treating acne, detoxing the digestive system, routinely removing toxins, and reducing cholesterol. They warn against taking “activated charcoal within 90 minutes to two hours of taking any prescription medication or supplements as it can prevent proper absorption.” I remember reading (or hearing) somewhere (probably decades ago) that activated charcoal identifies medicine as foreign matter and poisonous to the body and promptly binds and removes it from the body before it can be absorbed.
Either way, I am very grateful my mother never had to call 911, because I accidentally swallowed something poisonous. I would not like to have horror stories about both the poison and syrup of ipecac. Actually, 9-1-1 was not even an option during most of my childhood.
And I can testify to successfully using activated charcoal for dental health, gassiness, bug and spider bites, removal of toxins, filtering water, and purifying air. I would suggest to only purchase it from sources you can trust, like your local health food store. I would not purchase it with sweetener additives, even at a health food store. DrAxe.com advises, “Look for activated charcoal made from coconut shells or identified wood species that have ultra-fine grains, like activated bamboo charcoal and activated coconut charcoal powder.”
Likely in the wake of poor air quality and mask mandates over the last three years, the activated charcoal rush is on for cleansing the air with bags of “specially formulated activated bamboo charcoal.”