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I have read some claims that charcoal bags help removing harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

  • Bamboo Charcoal helps improve indoor air quality by absorbing and trapping odors, allergens, and harmful VOCs.

Is this claim scientifically supported? Do only charcoal air filters work?

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Yes (Note: Air flow needed through the charcoal for the claimed benefits). Per 'Science of Bamboo Charcoal: Study on Carbonizing Temperature of Bamboo Charcoal and Removal Capability of Harmful Gases' 2002, the conclusions of the researchers were “charcoal can be used effectively as a countermeasure against Sick Building Syndrome or as a deodorant.”

The benzene, toluene, indole, skatole and nonenal removal effect were the highest for the bamboo charcoal carbonized at 1000°C and tended to increase as the carbonizing temperature of the bamboo charcoal increased. The removal effect for ammonia was the highest on the bamboo charcoal carbonized at 500°C. It is concluded that the effective carbonizing temperature is different for each chemical, and a charcoal must be specifically selected for use as an adsorbent or deodorant.

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  • Note that the air needs to flow through the charcoal to get the benefits. Just sticking a bag of activated carbon in the corner won't do anything.
    – Mark
    Jun 27 '15 at 8:06
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    The adsorption effect does not require air to be actively pushed through the charcoal, but only requires the air to come in contact with the charcoal. Note that in the linked paper, the test was conducted by placing the charcoal in a sealed bag with the pollutant. There was no active circulation of the air in the bag - in fact air movement was minimised by separating the two while filling and stabilising temperature, and opening a seal between them to begin the test. p.474 right hand column.
    – 11101111
    Jan 15 '19 at 4:17

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