Diatomaceous earth; a very long word for a very tiny thing!
What is a diatom
Diatoms are microscopic single-celled algae, living mainly in the oceans, but also found in freshwater and other moist environments. Salt water diatoms are the ones we interested in here, and they secrete silica to form a hard cell wall. When magnified, this silica reveals extremely complex and beautiful shapes and patterns, as you can see above.
What is diatomaceous earth
Diatoms have lived on Earth for millions of years. Their prehistoric cousins, when they died, sunk to the ocean floor and were crushed to become part of the sea bed.
Today, some of those ancient sea beds are exposed, and the fossilised remains of trillions of tiny diatoms form a chalk-like sedimentary rock that’s easily crumbled into a fine abrasive powder; diatomaceous earth.
Diatomaceous earth has many uses. The porous, sponge-like structure of the fossilised diatoms makes an excellent filter material commonly used in swimming pools. Its gritty abrasive nature is a good ingredient for polish. And being totally natural and non-toxic, it finds many uses in products for human and animal consumption.
Diatomaceous earth and slugs
A barrier of diatomaceous earth is extremely unpleasant for a slug to cross. The microscopic razor-sharp particles of crushed fossils slice through the slug’s protective slime, lacerating its soft underside and causing it to dehydrate and die. It’s also a moisture absorbing desiccant, sucking the fluid from the slug.
In exactly the same way, diatomaceous earth is often used to control parasites on both humans and animals. It cuts and scrapes away at the protective outer layer of many small insects, then the desiccating powder draws out the fluid, leading to dehydration and death.
But for us gardeners this can be a double-edged sword. Many insects are our friends and we don’t want to harm them. So it’s best to use diatomaceous earth sparingly and selectively in the garden.
Be sure to use a product designed for garden use. Some types, such as for swimming pool filtration, have been chemically treated and will kill plants.
Diatomaceous earth is easily dispersed by wind and rain so it needs reapplying in unfavourable conditions.
The fine powder can be irritating if inhaled, so it’s best to use a mask. The moisture absorbing properties can dry the hands, so gloves are advised for prolonged handling. It will dry the eyes if used carelessly.
Other interesting uses
Diatomaceous earth has many other remarkable uses. These include:
- Toothpaste – The fine abrasive powder is non-toxic, making it a useful ingredient in toothpaste.
- Water Filtration – With so many places for contaminating particles to become lodged, diatomaceous earth makes excellent filter material for ponds and swimming pools.
- Chemical Spills – The miniature fossilised ‘sponges’ soak up and trap the liquid, making it easier to remove and safely transport from the scene.
- Cat Litter – The super absorbent properties are put to good use as component of cat litter.
- Explosives – Alfred Nobel discovered that highly volatile nitro-glycerine could be made more stable by absorbing it into diatomaceous earth; hence was born dynamite.
- Grain Storage – Food grade diatomaceous earth is non-toxic and can be used as an additive for both domestic and commercial storage of grain to repel and kill insects.
- Medical Uses – Some people claim that diatomaceous earth has many health benefits. After all, a small quantity of silica is vital for a healthy body, and many essential minerals are lacking in a lot of today’s highly processed foods. But, although non-toxic, it’s always wise to seek the advice of your doctor before taking any supplements.
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Slugs used to live in the ocean, which is why they still need to keep moist
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