Are the claimed health effects of zeolites a hoax?
In one word, yes. “Zeolites” are promoted on the web as “detoxifying agents,” enhancing our chance for longevity. One company claims that zeolites are the answer to surviving the “World’s Toxic Crisis.” It’s website tells us that over 70,000 chemicals are dumped into the environment by industry, 65,000 of which are potentially hazardous, and that all of us, of any age, have enough toxic chemicals inside our bodies to cause constant DNA damage. Also, because of the nuclear accident in Japan we have soaked up radiation. And they have the answer to this onslaught. Let me quote directly: “ETS Zeolite is the best way to reverse heavy metal toxicity! It removes ammonia, pesticides and other chemicals from the body. It is the single most effective means of removing radiation from the body. ETS Zeolite will safely remove thousands of toxins from your body.”
So much for the flagrantly nonsensical claims. Let’s get down to the science. Zeolites are real and do indeed have some interesting uses, none of which involve “detoxifying the body.” The name “zeolite” derives from the Greek words “zein” which means “to boil” and “lithos” for “stone.” So, zeolites are “boiling stones.” It was way back in 1756 that the Swedish mineralogist, Baron A. F. Cronstedt, noted that certain rocks seemed to boil when heated with a flame. These minerals had crystallized in the presence of water which they retained in pores, or channels in their crystal structure. Upon heating, the water boiled out. But water can also be reabsorbed by dry zeolites which are therefore widely used as anti-fog agents in double and triple glazed windows. Zeolites can also trap a variety of other molecules in their porous internal structure.
A large variety of natural and synthetic zeolites exist. They are all essentially “aluminosilicates” meaning that they are composed of aluminum, silicon and oxygen. These elements constitute the crystal framework and their specific relative abundance and bonding pattern determine the size of the “channels” that permeate the crystal. Some zeolites can preferentially trap nitrogen and can therefore be used to separate the oxygen and nitrogen components of air. Others can exchange sodium ions trapped in their structure for calcium and magnesium and thus remove these from water. his is known as “water softening” and accounts for the widespread use of zeolites in detergents. If the mineral content of water is high, detergents do not work well. The right pore size zeolite can even remove undesirable compounds such as methyl mercaptan that can taint instant coffee. This objectionable skunk-like smell is just one of the 700 odd compounds in coffee fragrance. But it yields to the right zeolite! Various other organic compounds responsible for smells are also absorbed by zeolites, so powdered zeolites are used to combat some nasty smells. Ethylene, the gas released by ripening fruits, can also be absorbed by these chemicals. Special bags for storing fruit can be impregnated with zeolites to prevent some overly ripe fruits from stimulating ripening in neighbouring fruits. Indeed the release of ethylene is why one rotten apple can spoil a whole barrel.
Speaking of rotten apples, promoting the ingestion of zeolites for detoxifying the body is balderdash. This is a classic case of scrounging up a bit of real science, in this case the absorption properties of zeolites, and stretching the facts in a stupefying, meaningless fashion for monetary gain. Implying that zeolites can remove radiation from the bodyis ludicrous. “Radiation” is not some substance that can be removed. Unfortunately such gobbledygook can’t be removed from the web either. While zeolites can’t detoxify a body, they can do some unusual things. Researchers have discovered that while young roosters are up to mating many times a day, older ones slack off. But incorporating a type of zeolite into feed enhances a rooster’s desire to mate. I suppose it can then crow about the benefits of zeolites. Maybe I shouldn’t even be mentioning this. It might give some quacks an idea about promoting zeolites in yet another imaginative way.