Diatoms form a major part of our planet’s biomass. These living substances are responsible for supplying as high as 40% of oxygen made in earth. Diatoms are single cell organisms but can be of multiple shapes – such as, resembling a star, ribbon, zigzag structures, etc. They reproduce on their own – i.e., asexually, and each has a very limited lifespan of less than a week. The fossil remains of these single-cell organisms form the basis for diatomaceous earth. The crumbled form of this earth resembles a white powder. The density is however very low mainly due to porosity. It essentially contains silicon dioxide or silica. Of late, health foods are increasingly using diatomaceous earth as an ingredient in a few supplements. It is highly recommended to stay aware of its possible side effects.

Diatomaceous earth is widely used as an insect repellent. It is known to work effectively to keep away pests such as spiders, bed bugs, crickets, cockroaches, etc. Other uses include being used as a deworming substance for cattle, control of insects in granaries or areas where grains are stored. This earth can also work as an anticaking substance. Among bonsai gardeners, it is used as a conditioner of soil as well as an additive. As a health food, the benefits of diatomaceous earth remain largely non-evidenced. However, manufacturers of this earth ascribe a handful of benefits to it. Some of the claims made include – ability to decrease bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein – LDL) levels in blood, its capability to function as a detoxing agent and to boost bone health.

Diatomaceous earth is believed to influence the metabolism of fats. Intake of this earth is claimed to control and reduce cholesterol levels; it is believed to reduce the risks of heart conditions such as cardiac arrests. Short term intake of this earth – for a period of 30 days – is known to have reduced LDL cholesterol levels among users. Not stopping with LDL, this earth is also considered to have reduced the level of triglycerides in blood.

Its ability to function as a detoxing agent stems from its properties to purify water. It is a known fact that diatomaceous earth can filter and eliminate metals out of water. However, this earth’s capability to cleanse your gastric tract is yet to be fully evidenced.

Silicon dioxide (or, silica) is a known ingredient of bones. Though diatomaceous earth is endowed with rich deposits of silica, the extent to which it is absorbed by your system remains unclear. Also, most of the silicon dioxide is discharged as waste along with urine. So, studies are still underway to know how it can help boost bone health.

This earth is also claimed to enhance health of teeth, nails and skin; it is widely believed to reduce episodes of constipation (difficulties to pass stool) and the removal of dead cells from your skin. In a few instances, this earth is also promoted as an oral care product. The food and drug administration (FDA) has accorded a “Generally Recognized as Safe” – GRAS rating to filter-mass made with this earth. Owing to this, diatomaceous earth has been in use as a filtering agent in many food products. Its use is more pronounced in the making of corn-syrup and other foods high on fructose.

Side effects of diatomaceous earth

Foremost of all, no scientific directions are available on the optimal dosage specifications. So, clinical guidance on how much of this earth can be eaten per day remains inadequately documented. Inhalation of this earth can lead to nasal congestion, infections in the nasal airways and air passages. The most common side effects of inhaling this earth include bleeding from the nose, soreness of throat, respiratory problems, incessant coughs, runny nose, persistent episodes of sneezing, etc.

Respiratory problems may – at times – worsen to become conditions like wheezing, gasping or shortness of breath. Such breathing problems are more likely to show up among people who smoke or in people who are allergic to dust, mites or other fine particles. Those who are living with lung problems such as bronchitis or asthma may turn more vulnerable to most of these risks. When people stop being exposed to this earth, most of these side effects disappear on their own.

Those who handle very large quantities of this earth may develop serious ailments such as lung cancers or other lung-related disorders. Application of heat to this earth yields crystals of silicon dioxide. At excessive temperatures, this type of earth can be more hazardous to health. People working with heated forms of diatomaceous earth are more likely to develop several lung conditions as well as respiratory problems. These are often treated as occupational risks or hazards. Such risks are known to occur in workers who handle this earth every day. This also means – an occasional contact with this earth is unlikely to trigger major health risks. In case of continuous contact, your skin may develop rashes or wounds. In some very rare instances, a few people have experienced skin loss.

Types of adverse reactions may vary from one individual to another. The reactions are found to vary based on your overall wellbeing – especially lung health, your age and gender. Also, a safe dose of this earth is not clearly evidenced. Before taking this earth, it is strongly recommended to talk to your doctor or pharmacist. Also, your medical team needs to know about the other drugs you are presently taking. As a safer practice, you are advised to prepare a list of all the drugs you are currently consuming. In this list, ensure to include drugs such as over the counter (OTC) meds, prescription drugs as well as herbal supplements, if any. Once you have furnished this list, never change, alter or discontinue the intake of any of the drugs present in the list.

Safety precautions to avoid or minimise side effects of diatomaceous earth

If you have a medical history of respiratory disorders or if your family has a clinical history of asthma and bronchitis, you need to be very careful while handling this earth. If you have had such prior respiratory conditions, you are more likely to develop lung problems. Exposure to this earth can aggravate conditions like nasal allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder – popularly referred as COPD, bronchial asthma, bronchitis or other obstructive conditions in your lower airways.

The side effects this earth may trigger in pregnant women are largely unclear. So, if you are planning to get pregnant or if you are already pregnant, you need to take needful caution to avoid coming in direct contact with this earth. Also, it is not clear if this earth can cause adverse reactions among breastfeeding women. Those who are nursing a baby must stay away from inhalation or direct handling of this earth. If you need more clarifications on the likely impact, you are advised to talk to a qualified chest medicine physician or a certified clinical practitioner.

Many variants of silica – Knowing the differences

You need to know the difference between amorphous silicon dioxide and crystallised silicon dioxide. The common thing between them is both are extremely injurious to the respiratory system upon inhalation. The amorphous form of silica is available as pest-control variant and also as a food-grade variant. The food-grade is processed multiple times in order to eliminate any caked forms of the earth. On the other hand, pest-control variant has a few pest-repelling chemicals. If you do not know the differences, you may erroneously use these two variants interchangeably. The crystallised form of silicon dioxide is a pool-grade of diatomaceous earth; when these crystals are inhaled, several acute side effects may occur. A few such severe side effects include tuberculosis, cancers in your lungs and a few obstructive disorders such as bronchitis, COPD or asthma.

You can stay safe by following some basic precautions and safety measures. First of all, always use the pest-control variant of diatomaceous earth only for pest repellent purposes. While using it for pest control, never use this earth in large quantities. Use a proper appliance or applicator to dispense minimal amount of this earth. Always use a moistened wipe to clean the surface once the pests are driven away. You may thus save your household from accidental inhalation. Last but not least – use the earth only on least frequented areas such as corners or base-slabs of cupboards, etc.

In sum, inhaling the diatomaceous earth can result in nasal bleed, irritation or soreness of throat, breathing difficulties (wheezing or shortness of breath), incessant coughs, nasal allergies, sneezing, etc. When you limit or stop your exposures to this earth, most of these adverse effects may cease to show up. In order to understand the other likely risks or side effects, it is recommended to consult a certified clinical practitioner or chest medicine expert.

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