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Health Benefits And Risks Of Activated Charcoal


Sold over-the-counter, activated charcoal can be beneficial when used by a medical professional. But some people use it on their own for such things as high cholesterol, hangovers or stomach pain at serious risk to their health.

Dr. Shannon Rickner, an Emergency Medicine & Toxicology Fellow, North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Health & Hospital System, talks about activated charcoal.

Highlights from Dr. Rickner’s interview:

What is activated charcoal? “It’s charcoal, it’s carbon. It’s the same thing that’s in a pencil lead. It’s the same thing that’s in the briquettes in your grill, minus all the nasty chemicals that they put in there to light it on fire. What they do is take the large bricks and pieces of carbon and they process it. It goes through intense pressure, intense heat and its pulverized into tiny granules or powder. In the process of doing that, it creates tiny little pits and ports on the surface. We utilize it by giving to a patient who has overdosed on a large of deadly or dangerous medications. And it sticks to them. It binds them and it prevents them from absorbing along the gastrointestinal lining. (Poisonings, as well?) Absolutely."

It has to be used fairly quickly: "Once you’ve passed an hour, hour and a half, maybe two hours, the rate of its absorption, and the elimination of these very deadly drugs from the body declines to a point that it’s more dangerous than it’s worthwhile."

Possible health risks:  “One that we know of is it will make you nauseous. And there have been some perspective case studies that have looked at the rate of vomiting after children willingly or unwillingly drink this stuff in an effort to mitigate the dangers of whatever medication they may gotten into. And a significant percentage of those children within ten minutes vomited. The problem with vomiting is that even a small portion can get into the lungs. Lungs have a difficult time breathing when they’re coated with charcoal."

For more information:

Activated Charcoal: Uses and Risks 

Activated Charcoal (By mouth) 

Charcoal Juice Is Now a Thing 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.