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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth is one of those interesting substances that is more common than most people know and has a variety of uses from a prepper's perspective.

What It Is
Diatomaceous earth is the fossilized remains of microscopic single-celled algae, called diatoms, that died and accumulated over thousands of years. (Think coral, but single celled and not in a colony.)

A fine white powder, diatomaceous earth is tiny and is full of even tinier holes, making it a good filter. Being mostly silica (the main component of glass), it is fairly inert and won't react with food or water. Because of this, it is sold in pet shops for aquarium water filters and in health food stores for its many purported benefits.

Types
Diatomaceous earth (hereafter DE) comes in a variety of grades, depending on the source and any treatment it may have received before it was sold. Food grade (fresh-water diatoms, aka amorphous DE) and filter or pool grade (salt-water diatoms, aka crystalline DE)) are very different and you need to know what you want to use it for before you go looking for a source. I'll use FG for food grade and NFG for non-food grade in this article to differentiate the two. NFG DE can create an inhalation hazard due to the fine silica dust created when it is treated in the factory. Avoid breathing NFG dust as you would asbestos, since they're chemically very similar!

Uses
The uses for DE fall into two categories: proven and unproven. The proven uses have scientific research behind them and can be generally regarded as safe, while the unproven uses are supported by anecdotal evidence and stories on the internet. Like anything else on the internet (including our little blog), you will need to do your own research and decide for yourself what meets your standards of proof.

Proven Uses
  • Insecticide (FG): Evelyn mentioned using DE against bugs, and it works well against fleas, roaches, ants, bedbugs, and other household insects.It kills in a non-toxic manner by pulling oils/waxes out of an insect's shell (exoskeleton) and causing them to dehydrate and die, so it will work on any creature with an exoskeleton. It also works on garden slugs and other gastropods through the same action. Sprinkling DE on carpets, in cracks, and even directly on your pets are good ways to apply it. 
  • Filter media (FG): As a powder, DE makes a very fine (as in “not coarse”) filter for water treatment, and if compressed and fired (calcinated)  in a kiln, makes a solid filter that has been used to make water potable for over a century. NFG “pool” grade DE has usually been heat treated and is fine for water treatment, but not for ingesting.
  • Abrasive:  Being similar to pumice, a volcanic rock that is very soft and porous, DE has been used as a mild abrasive in toothpastes (FG), metal polishes (FG or NFG), and exfoliants like facial scrubs (FG).
  • A source of trace minerals (FG): DE is 80-90% Silica, 2-4% Alumina, 0.5-2% Iron Oxide, and other trace minerals varying by the location of the DE mining operation. Silica is a trace mineral that your body needs is very small quantities to regulate certain internal processes, but isn't readily absorbed by your body.
  • Thermal insulator (NFG): Being mostly silica, DE has many of the same properties of ceramics, making it a good thermal insulator. DE is one of the ways to make refractory bricks for lining fireplaces, forges, and wood stoves due to its insulating properties and thermal stability. It won't crack or break down like cement/concrete does when exposed to heat, and it keeps the metal shell of the forge or stove from getting too hot.
  • Animal feed additive (FG): Some companies add DE to animal feed to keep it from clumping up, with the additional side-effect of killing any insects that try to infest the feed. The FDA has approved this use and has set requirements for the designation “Food Grade”. If you're storing whole grains, adding DE to it will help it keep longer and won't hurt you.
  • Absorbent (NFG): One of the other names for DE is Kieselguhr. Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerin could be handled (more) safely if it was absorbed into Kieselguhr, and he trademarked the mixture as dynamite. Many commercial cat litters and oil absorbents are made from low quality DE.

Unproven uses (all FG)
  • Removes internal parasites: There are claims that DE works well as an anthelmintic, which means that it will remove intestinal worms. This is a common claim seen on sites that are selling DE, but lab testing hasn't proven any benefit. I put this in my “It can't hurt to try it if I have to” file. If food is scarce, I don't want to be feeding any more mouths than I have to, and the various intestinal parasites are easier to pick up when times get rough.
  • “Detox” and intestinal cleansing: There are many claims made about the health benefits of removing all of the “impurities” from the insides of your intestines and colon, and the snake oil salesmen have touted DE as a good way to clean you out. I'm not convinced of the benefits of scouring your internal parts unless you're getting ready for a colonoscopy.
  • Pet health: A better coat, less smell, more energy, and better bowel regularity are all possible effects of mixing a bit of DE into your pet's food.
  • Miscellaneous health benefits attributed to DE include better hair growth, stronger teeth, reduced menopause symptoms, alleviating the effects of osteoporosis, removing metals and radioactive isotopes from the body, and just about anything else you can expect to suffer from. Beware the “miracle cure” sales pitches. While I do believe in miracles, I don't believe that they are real if they're for sale.

I discovered a somewhat local source of DE while researching this post, and will need to make a short road trip to go talk to the people selling it. Hopefully I can get more information on it from them, and if I'm really lucky I'll be able to get some samples to send to our resident product reviewers and let them test it for future articles. Meanwhile, DE can be bought by the pound on Amazon

The Fine Print


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