activated charcoal

Little Boxes Made of Whicky-Whacky – The Bamboo Charcoal ‘Hei Cube’

My apologies if I’ve just earwormed you with ‘Little Boxes’.

A few weeks ago, I was settling into bed of an evening with some light reading (Organic Gardener Magazine*) to wind down with when I spotted a relatively benign but nonetheless irritating feature in an advertorial. This is the ‘Hei Cube‘.

Hei Cube advertisement, text transcribed below.

The text reads as follows:

“Don’t forget your home-office in the spring-cleaning spree, but let the Hei Cube do the hard work for you. While it won’t dust the desk, it is said to help absorb electomagnetic waves when placed near a computer. Made from bamboo charcoal, it will also soak up unwanted odours and moisture from the room, and is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable. Available for $16.95 per cube, from purebamboo.com.au; 07 XXXX XXXX.”

Rudimentary as my radiation materials science knowledge is, the above struck me as suspicious. It bothered me enough that I went and confirmed that I was correct in my knowledge that the only materials which are capable of shielding electromagnetic fields are metals. Carboniferous material such as bamboo charcoal is completely ineffective at blocking electromagnetic waves when used in a shield. And any material placed in a cube to the side of a device emitting electromagnetic waves is completely irrelevant, electromagnetic waves do not change their direction because they find a little black cube attractive.

More troubling to me though is the suggestion that electromagnetic waves as found in household environments should pose any concern or present any risk to our health. I can understand how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may sound alarming – particularly when the ‘R’ word, radiation, is mentioned. A quick google about safety concerns about EMF brings up pages of links to sites warning of the dangers of exposure, anecdotal evidence of illness and harm abounds and there’s a substantial number of products sold which claim to protect one from the supposedly damaging radiation emanating from our televisions, computers and mobile phones.

A critical eye must be applied and a credible source of information must be found. This being a health concern, I went with the World Health Organisation.

The effects of electromagnetic radiation have been widely studied for many years now and scientific knowledge in this area is highly extensive. A recent extensive WHO review of available scientific literature concludes that based on current evidence, there are no health conditions which have been linked to exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation.

To summarise, the Hei Cube claims to protect you from electromagnetic waves which are not known to cause any harm by not affecting the electromagnetic field in any way.

As for the other claim made, that bamboo charcoal can absorb moisture and odours, there is perhaps some truth to it. Bamboo charcoal is a form of activated carbon and activated carbon is notably porous and it’s high surface area makes it capable of binding to a range of chemicals when used as an air or water filter. Whether the efficacy of a stationary cube of bamboo charcoal is noteworthy enough to make it worth $16.95 is debatable, but the claim that it will work as a desiccant (a substance which absorbs moisture) and deodoriser is at least relatively plausible. And I suppose some people may find it more aesthetically pleasing than a small bowl of bicarbonate of soda, which will also act as a desiccant and deodoriser at around a fiftieth of the price.

Note that the copy from the magazine uses language which avoids directly making a factual claim about the EMF blocking properties of the Hei Cube – “it is said to help absorb electromagnetic waves”. I do wonder how deliberate this was, whether the copy writer was aware that the claim was based on pseudoscience and worded the text accordingly, either to create room for doubt or to avoid making a false claim. Either way, I did leave a message on the magazine’s Facebook page. I received a cordial reply from the editor a few days later in which he assured me that he’d taken my message on board and let me know where to find more information on the watermelon frame I’d mentioned.

I’m planning on growing some lovely watermelons this year, an heirloom variety called ‘Moon and Stars’. And I will be growing them by exposing them to the most familiar form of electromagnetic radiation that we all encounter, sunlight!

Further reading:
What are electromagnetic fields? WHO
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – EMF

* I intend on conducting and writing up some critical assessment of the appeal organic home food production methods hold for me. Until then, I’d like to quickly state my position – I am not outright opposed to GMO (I believe that it has the potential for a great deal of good), I am far from chemophobic and I want to stress that the label ‘organic’ is not a literal one – it originated from the view of the garden as a single organism, rather than the now common interpretation that organic gardening is the exclusive use of organic compounds. Oh, and my thoughts on biodynamics? A whole lot of woo which can result in some non-magical but often delicious produce. Nom.