Monday, August 23, 2021

Activated Charcoal

Not actually Erin.
& is used with permission.

Before I tell you about activated charcoal, I need to explain the difference between absorption and adsorption. 
  • Absorption is when a fluid is taken into the volume of something, like water into a sponge. 
  • Adsorption is when a substance, be it gas, liquid or dissolved solid, adheres to the surface area of something. Think of it like a brush picking up lint, but on a molecular level.
Activated charcoal is a fine, black powder that is odorless, tasteless, and nontoxic that is also a highly adsorptive substance, and it works by attracting toxins to its large surface area -- just one gram of it has a surface area in excess of 3,000 square meters -- which then bind to it through absorption. Since carbon isn't digestible, ingesting tablets of activated charcoal will act as a filter that travels through your stomach and intestines and is then safely eliminated along with the poisons it collects. 

How safely? In 1813 the French chemist M. Bertrand swallowed a lethal dose of arsenic mixed with charcoal and survived without any ill effects. In 1831, French pharmacist named P. F. Touery swallowed ten times the lethal dose of strychnine, followed by just 15 grams of charcoal in a demonstration before the French Academy of Medicine. He, too, survived with no ill effects. 

The key word, however, is activated. Not all charcoal is activated carbon, and the charcoal briquettes you buy for grilling are probably full of unhealthy chemicals to increase burn time. If you want activated charcoal, you have two choices: buy it or make it. Buying it is pretty easy; you can get a bottle of one hundred capsules from Amazon for about $10. I have two of these, one of my bug out bag and one in my get home bag. If you are prepping for the home, you are better off buying by the pound

Making it yourself is a lot more complicated, and will be the subject of a later article. 

Administering Activated Charcoal
DISCLAIMER: This information is intended only for education and it meant to be used only in extreme situations. If you can call 911 or get to an Emergency Room, do so before following these directions. 
I am not a physician and this should not be construed as medical advice. I accept no responsibility should you or someone under your care suffer harm from following these directions. 
1) Drink it as Powder in Water
Store-bought activated charcoal often comes in gelatin capsules, primarily to prevent a mess. (If you've ever had a copy machine spill toner, you know the kind of mess I'm talking about.) However, if you swallow the pill whole, the gelatin must first be digested before the charcoal can begin working, and if the recipient has ingested something toxic they may not have that time. It is far more effective to break a capsule, pour it into a cup of water, and have the recipient drink it. Warning: Do not breathe activated charcoal! It will cause Pneumonitis!

2) Drink a LOT of it
The amount of activated charcoal to administer is based on either the amount of toxin ingested, if known, and the patient's body weight if not. Regardless, it's going to be lot as most activated charcoal capsules are measured in milligrams and the recommended doses to counteract poisoning are measured in grams per kilogram of patient weight. From The Use of Activated Charcoal to Treat Intoxications (2019) comes this table: 


Let's look at that Amazon listing I linked. It has 100 capsules of 560 milligrams activated charcoal each. A 50 gram dose for an adult would be (100 x 560 = 56,000 mg = 56 grams), or the entire bottle. It's going to be awful, but it's better than dying. 

If you want to read more on the specifics, I suggest the Mayo Clinic's page on activated charcoal and this PDF

3) Drink it quickly
Activated charcoal can only bind with toxins which haven't been absorbed into the body through the intestines, so you need to administer it as soon as possible (preferably within an hour of poison ingestion). 

4) Know what it can and cannot adsorb
Unfortunately, activated charcoal is not proof against all forms of poison. It has low to no effectiveness against:
  • Alcohols (e.g., ethanol, methanol, and glycols [for instance ethyleneglycol])
  • Anorganic salts (e.g., sodium chloride)
  • Metals and their anorganic compounds (e.g., lithium, iron, or other heavy metals [for instance lead or mercury])
  • Organic solvents (e.g., acetone, dimethylsulfoxide)
  • Acids and bases
  • Cyanides

It is, however, quite effective against: 
  • ACE inhibitors
  • Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) 
  • Amphetamines
  • Antidepressants (except lithium)
  • Antiepileptics
  • Antihistamines
  • Aspirin, salicylates
  • Atropine
  • Barbiturates
  • Benzodiazepines (NB: somnolence)
  • Beta blockers
  • Calcium-channel blockers
  • Quinine, quinidine
  • Chloroquine and primaquine
  • Dapsone
  • Digoxin, Digitoxin
  • Diuretics (especially furosemide, torasemide)
  • Nonsteroidal antirheumatics (NSAR)
  • Neuroleptics
  • Oral antidiabetics (especially glibenclamide, glipizide)
  • Opiates, dextromethorphan 
  • Paracetamol
  • Piroxicam
  • Tetracyclines
  • Theophylline
  • Phytotoxins that are adsorbed
  • Amatoxin (death cap)
  • Aconitine (aconite)
  • Colchicine (autumn crocus)
  • Cucurbitacin (courgette, Cucurbitaceae)
  • Ergotamine, ergot alkaloids
  • Ibotenic acid, muscarine (fly agaric, panther cap)
  • Nicotine (tobacco)
  • Ricin (castor oil plant)
  • Strychnine (nux vomica)
  • Taxanes (yew)
  • Digitalis glycosides (foxglove)
Please note that many of those are painkillers and antibiotics, which may result in extreme discomfort for the patient. 

5) Know the side effects
Drinking that much activated charcoal will likely result in nausea and vomiting, mainly from the taste and texture. This could be seen as a good thing, if it causes the patient to vomit up the poisonous substance. 

Diarrhea is a common side effect, and constipation is less common. Black stool is also common, but that's just the charcoal coloring it. 

If the patient is on painkillers or antibiotics, those will need to be re-administered once the toxin has been expelled. 

Making a Poultice
 You can also make a poultice out of it to draw out irritants like from insect bites. You just take two tablespoons of activated charcoal, mix it with sterile water to form a paste, and then put it over the wound. I've included a video of this process as well.

Activated charcoal belongs in every prepper's supplies. Next week, I'll tell you how you can make your own. 


  1. Erin, very helpful post. My wife is on narcotic therapy due to chronic pain. That includes both a fentanyl patch and also Norco pain pills. When she started this therapy, she was afraid, due to the bad rap that these treatments get, and so she had her doctor prescribe Narcan for us to have in our home, in case she overdosed.
    Of course, it has not happened, and likely never will. But still, it is something that I am glad to have on hand, and am wondering if I should have either in my BOB, or perhaps in my first aid kit, in my vehicle. Any opinions, from anyone? I keep an eye on the date, and store it in a cool and dark place, so it stays usable. TIA, for any suggestions.

    1. Before I can answer your question, I have to ask: Do you know how to administer Narcan?

      If you can, then it's a useful thing to have in your preps. I don't know that I would keep it in a vehicle, as extremes of heat, cold, and humidity can reduce the efficacy of medication. But it would definitely be a good thing to have on hand, both at home and as EDC.

      If you don't know how to administer it, then you should get training before you carry it.

    2. My wife's doctor went over it with us. And I agree that it probably should not be carried in the vehicle. We keep tylenol in the glove box, ( why we still call it that, I don't know) in 2 packs. And we tend to take them, on occasion, so we rotate them out, at least every other month or so.
      So I think you have answered my question. My wife normally doesn't carry any narcotic with her, as it is a medication that she takes on a schedule. And the odds of us coming upon a person who is OD'ing, and that I would attempt to step in and administer Narcan to, are very slim to none. Not that I don't want to help, but the danger of making a mistake and causing harm is too great. 911 is the best move for that.
      And I have to say, Blue Collar Prepping has been especially good lately. Good Job, and thanks. At this time, I think it is very important to stay on top of things. Be well, and take care of yourself.


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