We have received a number of inquiries about the ability of activated charcoal to adsorb radioactive material. This page will look briefly at what activated charcoal can do.
We, along with the world, watched the bewildering scenes of the March, 2011 earthquake in Japan followed by the devastating tsunami. As if the massive destruction of life and property were not enough we all waited to hear what would happen to the stricken power plants. In nuclear power stations, two iodine isotopes (131I and 133I) are produced during nuclear fission, and this elementary iodine or radioactive methyl iodide may pollute exhaust air streams. With the reactor melt-downs and subsequent explosions radioactive gases were ejected.
As the safeguards in place failed one by one and radioactive material began to spread further and further, people have become more and more concerned. Even if the radioactive fallout does not reach “my” neighborhood, the specter of a similar event happening closer to home has many many people looking for ways to protect themselves from the health risks associated with radioactive exposure.
We have all heard how supplies of potassium iodide tablets were sold out within days of rumors of possible radiation exposure in America. The rationale being if one loaded the body with iodine it would prevent the thyroid glands from accepting any ingested or inhaled radioactive iodine. Sounds reasonable. But what is very odd is the media silence about the part activated charcoal plays in radioactive material decontamination. No one has mentioned the fact that nuclear reactor sites have giant activated charcoal beds.
Activated charcoal filter beds (ten to twelve tons) are used to retain radioactive gases from the nuclear boiling water reactor turbine condenser. The air vacuumed from the condenser contains traces of radioactive gases. The radioactive iodine is fully removed and deposited onto activated charcoal impregnated with potassium iodide. Through isotopic exchange, the radioactive methyl iodide is replaced by the inactive iodine. Owing to the low half life period of the iodine isotopes (131I = 8.04 days, 133I = 21 hours), they rapidly decay to non-radioactive solid species while bound to the activated charcoal as the filtered air passes through.
The activated charcoal of choice is a high activity (surface area) coconut-shell charcoal, which is virtually dust-free. With a minimum of 97% removal efficiency for radioactive methyl iodide, this material meets Nuclear Regulatory Guide 1.52. The charcoal is free of ammonia, and contains no heavy metals such as copper, lead, mercury, nickel or chromium.
Is activated coconut charcoal really that efficient in capturing and neutralizing radioactive fallout? Apparently the Japanese government thinks so. Right now there is an escalating shortage of coconut-based activated charcoals in large part due to stores being bought up by Japan. So, what about non-impregnated activated charcoal as opposed to regular activated charcoals? Are they at all effective?
In phone conversation with the owner of one specialty activated charcoal company who has been a supplier of the impregnated activated charcoal for nuclear reactor sites for many years, I learned that regular non-impregnated charcoal is just as effective as the more costly potassium iodide-impregnated activated charcoals. Apparently someone in authority in Japan knows that and is gleaning the Asian market of coconut-based activated charcoals.
A little super science intermission.
In 1985 researchers H. W. Kroto and R. E. Smalley were curious about the atmosphere of giant red stars. It was known that carbon forms cluster molecules under such conditions. Among other carbon species, they detected the carbon molecule C60 for the first time. It possessed unique physicochemical properties, extra stability, as well as some previously unexplained phenomena. To account for these features, they proposed a geodesic-like structure, one that essentially looks like the pattern on a soccer ball. Consequently the molecule was named after Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of geodesic domes (made famous at the 1967 World’s Fair). Buckminsterfullerene (fondly referred to as “Buckyballs” amongst some researchers) is the chosen name for C60, whereas the name fullerene is conveniently used for this whole family of closed carbon cages. They may not be as big as giant red stars, but these microscopic cells have gigantic appetites.
In 1999 Eiji Osawa, and colleagues at the Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan, demonstrated that C60 can also be extracted from non-activated wood-based charcoal. As a result, many researchers now visualize charcoal as a structure made up of fragments of these “Buckyballs”. Along with the discovery of nanotubes or “Bucky onions” there is the suggestion of new super magnetic and electrical properties. It all sounds a little bit like science fiction. No doubt in time these latest models for charcoal will again be modified. In the meantime charcoal still mystifies even the informed. Scientists marvel as they continue to ask, “How is charcoal able to…?”
Henry Schaefer is the resident Quantum Chemist at the University of Georgia and Professor of Chemistry, Emeritus, at UC Berkeley. He is the third most quoted chemist in the world. He writes of his different discoveries: “The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying, “So that’s how God did it!” How is charcoal able to…capture radioactive fallout? God knows.
But what about other radioactive substances, can activated charcoal be used to adsorb those as well?
Activated charcoal as a potential radioactive marker for gastrointestinal studies.
In 1998 researchers looked into the possibility of using activated charcoal as the carrier of radiopharmaceuticals for the scintigraphic measurement of colonic transit instead of 111In ion exchange resin pellets. Simulating stomach and bowel acidity and temperature, activated charcoal was tested to see how it reacted with the radiopharmaceuticals Na99Tc(m)O4, 99Tc(m)-DTPA, 111InCl3, 111In-DTPA, 201TlCl and 67Ga-citrate. The experiment was conducted over a 3-hour period. The researchers concluded:
“With the exception of 67Ga-citrate, the association of activated charcoal with the other radiopharmaceuticals was approximately 100% throughout the 3-hour incubation. In conclusion, activated charcoal appears to adsorb avidly with common radioisotopes, and appears promising as an alternative to resin ion exchange pellets used for the measurement of gastrointestinal transit by scintigraphy.”
Mullan BP, Camilleri M, Hung JC. (Nuclear Medicine, Department of Diagnostic Radiology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN)
Once again we see that activated charcoal can dramatically capture a host of radiaoctive materials in a lab and in our bodies as well.
Activated charcoal in radioactive labeling experiments.
One lab ware company sells activated charcoal disks used to adsorb the volatile 35S radioactive component before it can escape from Petri dishes during metabolic labeling experiments. The sterile filter paper disks are saturated with activated charcoal. Prior to metabolic labeling, the disk is set in the top half of the 100mm Petri dish lid. Following the addition of the volatile 35S Methionine - labeled compounds to the cell culture fluid, the Petri lid with the activated charcoal disk is placed over the bottom half of the Petri dish. The volatile radioactive compounds emitted in the metabolic labeling experiment are absorbed and immobilized by the charcoal disk. Activated charcoal cartridges are also placed around the incubator on shelves to capture any volatile radiolabels that may not have been captured by Petri dishes safeguarded with Charcoal Disks.
If you don’t happen to have these convenient charcoal disks/cartridges, another site suggests just using some powdered or granular activated charcoal which is supposed to be just as effective.
What about drinking water?
Certain rock types naturally contain radioactive elements referred to as NORM (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials). When a source of drinking water comes in contact with NORM-bearing rocks, radionuclides may accumulate in the water to levels of concern. The predominant radionuclides found in water include: radium, thorium, and uranium (and their decay products)
As water is treated to remove impurities, radionuclides may collect and eventually build up in filters, tanks, and pipes at treatment plants. The small amounts of NORM present in the source water may concentrate in sediment or sludges. Because the NORM is concentrated due to human activity, it is classified as TENORM (Technologically Enhanced Radioactive Material). Most of this waste is disposed in landfills and lagoons, or is applied to agricultural fields.
Most drinking water treatment sludges are thought to contain radium (226Ra) levels comparable to typical concentrations in soils. However, some water supply systems, primarily those relying on groundwater sources, may generate sludge with much higher 226Ra levels. Furthermore, some water treatment systems are more effective than others in removing naturally-occurring radionuclides from the water.
Activated charcoal is one method that effectively removes radionuclides. But… but if activated charcoal in water filters removes the radionuclides from the water, one problem solved may be replaced by a potentially larger problem. The radionuclides become more and more concentrated in the activated charcoal filter over time. Whether the decay rates are short or long, it is believed by some that the water filter may become a potential source of concentrated radiation exposure. When, how, and where the filters are disposed may become a concern when factored by thousands of households.
However, two conclusions from this should be obvious. One, activated charcoal on the short term can be instrumental in lowering radiation exposure from radionuclides by removing them from drinking water. Two, activated charcoal taken internally can bind radionuclides in the GI tract form ingested food and unfiltered water, and carry them all safely out of the body.
Is this all new rocket science?
In the Journal of Physical Chemistry of January 1908, the article “The Absorption of the Radio-active Emanations by Charcoal” reviewed the then up-to-date research on the ability of common non-activated charcoals to “hold” “radio-active emanations”. “The writer showed that charcoal and notably cocoa-nut [coconut] charcoal is a strong absorbent of the emanations of radium and of thorium.”
RW Boyle, M.Sc. goes on to describe several simple experiments and concludes, “There appears to be little doubt that if the radium emanation could be obtained in quantities comparable with ordinary gases it would show an absorption in charcoal at ordinary temperatures comparable with carbon dioxide”. “absorption took place in all kinds of charcoal, but was most marked in cocoa-nut charcoal. The absorption increases with its fineness of division, and decreased with temperature.” p378-380
The bottom line seems to be, whether they are coconut-based highly active impregnated activated charcoals, or non-coconut-based regular activated charcoals, or even simple non-activated charcoals, they are all, to a greater or lesser degree, effective in adsorbing, binding, neutralizing, capturing, or “holding” thousands of natural and man-made toxins, including radioactive material and radioactive emissions (or “emanations”).
Apparently many people must think so because, since the Japan earthquake and tsunami, one of the largest manufacturers of recreational water filters that use replaceable activated charcoal filters has not been able to keep up with the current demand (including www.BuyActivatedCharcoal.com).
Radioactive Laboratory Waste
Another interesting article I came across discussed autoclave equipment for disposal of solid laboratory waste that is both radioactive and heat sensitive. A double polypropylene bag with a charcoal vent filter and absorbent was designed to meet requirements for both steam sterilization and disposal of solid radioactive waste. This was based on previous experimentation demonstrating the effective containment of radioactive gases by activated charcoal.
In his book Radiation Protection: A Guide for Scientists, Regulators, and Physicians, Jacob Shapiro mentions other short-lived nuclides such as 85mKr (decay rate = 4.4hrs), 133Xe (5.3 days), and 131mXe (12 days) that are captured in large charcoal beds in nuclear power plants, but also talks about smaller adsorption systems used in building exhausts for research institutions and hospitals, in hood exhausts in individual research labs (similar to the charcoal exhaust hoods in kitchens), in small canisters containing 10 to 100 grams used in sampling contaminated atmospheres, and in canister-type breathing masks.
Where there is smoke.
In my research for this article I came across the blog NukeWorker Forum by workers and for workers in nuclear reactor facilities. On Jan 23, 2009 someone posed the question, “what could cause a fire in your charcoal filtration (at a nuclear power plant) after a dropped fuel bundle accident.”
tr (Heavy User) explained what would cause the fire in the charcoal bed. “Decay heat from halogens is the cause of the concern,” but went on to explain, “ The real concern is that too much decay heat can increase the charcoal temperature such that the trapped radioactive material is released.” Normally activated charcoal does not begin to release bound particles until reaching temperatures of 400-600°C and higher. A radioactive fuel bundle meltdown produces a lot of decay heat from the fission gases which can change things very quickly.
Protection of Carbon-Filled Adsorption Systems
To prevent loss of confinement for radioactive iodine and iodine compounds, carbon-bed temperatures must be maintained at a level where impregnants and trapped radioiodine cannot desorb. This requires the bed(s) to be large enough that specific loadings of iodine cannot exceed 2.5 mg/g of carbon, and that airflow through the bed can be maintained at some level in excess of 6 (preferably 10) linear fpm. If bed temperatures can be maintained below the level where desorption of impregnants and trapped radioiodine takes place, carbon ignition is unlikely. If a fire should start, however, total flooding or dumping of the carbon into a container of water is the only effective means of extinguishing a carbon bed fire that is known at this time. Per the Nuclear Air Cleaning Handbook
What was a little chilling was the last comment on the NukeWorker Forum by Already Gone, “I can relate from experience that any smoke from any fire in containment that gets sucked into your charcoal [bed] will release most if not all of the radioactive material that is trapped in the medium. It seems that the charcoal has a higher affinity for smoke particles than it does for Iodine, or anything else….likes like like, organic to organic. [both smoke and charcoal are carbon/organic]
When I read that, all the concern at the Japanese Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear reactor facility suddenly became more clear. Not only were workers trying to prevent nuclear contamination from the reactors from being dispersed they were also trying to cool the giant charcoal beds that have concentrated levels of radioactive gases from being released into the atmosphere as well. Does it also explain why Japan is feverishly buying up all the coconut-based activated charcoal they can?
What is abundantly clear is that activated charcoals in general and activated coconut charcoal in particular are well known to capture and bind radioactive material. But for some reason the public is not being told. Why? And why are all the natural health gurus and environmental advocates just about as clueless as everyone else?
What is a person to do?
Activated charcoals were first developed from coconut charcoal for use in poisonous gas masks for the World Wars. What few people know is that today, not only are activated coconut charcoals still used in gas masks, but, with the discovery of nano-technology, activated charcoal is now spun into thread and one application is the production of Activated Carbon Cloth for NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical) protective clothing, socks and gloves.
That is all well and good for frontline soldiers and disaster workers but what about the rest of us?
In visiting with one experimental scientist I learned that after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, one of the treatment programs was zeolite. About 500,000 tons of powdered zeolite containing clinoptilolite was used in and around the Chernobyl reactors. It was used to decontaminate the reactors, people and the soil. The majority of the zeolite was used for the construction of protective barriers and for agricultural applications in polluted areas. Children were fed cookies and biscuits with 2-30 wt.% pure and powdery clinoptilolite to help remove radiation from their bodies while dairy cows were also fed zeolite to remove radiation from their milk. Zeolite has a significant internal surface area. Further studies have shown that, when combined with a low pH activated charcoal, adsorption of radioactive material is dramatically increased.
Once again we find that “You don’t have to be wealthy to be healthy.” Our loving heavenly Father has provided people everywhere with a natural remedy that is SAFE2 - Simple and Scientific, Affordable and Accessible, Free of adverse side effects and Faith inspiring, Easy to use and Environmentally friendly.