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No, activated charcoal won’t counteract date rape drugs – seek medical attention

Posts that have resurfaced on social media tell people to carry activated charcoal tablets when going out, to “counteract most date rape drugs”. But this advice isn’t solid.

  • Activated charcoal is used in emergency medicine if someone has been poisoned, as substances stick to its large surface area, made up of many tiny holes.
     
  • However, it must be ingested soon after specific poisonous drugs have been taken, and in large doses.
     
  • Alcohol is the most common substance involved in drug-facilitated sexual assault, often called “date rape”, and activated charcoal won’t help in these cases.

“Share to save a life” is the ending of a post about date rape, which has been circulating on multiple social media platforms in South Africa. 

The post advises people to carry activated charcoal tablets when going to social events. It reads: “Should you feel weird or out of place, drink one tablet and they will counteract most Date Rape Drugs.”

The claim was originally posted to Twitter in 2019 and retweeted 11,000 times, resurfacing on Facebook in 2020, and again in April and August 2021. 

Activated charcoal is used as an antidote to some poisons. But will it “counteract most” date rape drugs? We checked. 

Activated charcoal can be used to treat poisoning – but only in hospitals, and only for some poisons

Activated charcoal is a type of charcoal that can bind to other substances. It has a large number of tiny holes on its surface, which increases the area that substances can stick to. 

Because of this it is often used in emergency medicine. Patients who have ingested poison are fed activated charcoal, and the poisonous substance sticks to the surface of the charcoal. This stops some of the poison from being absorbed by the body, as the charcoal is not digested. 

This treatment is only effective if the charcoal is consumed soon after the poison.

Activated charcoal is also marketed as a supplement for medical conditions such as high cholesterol, but there’s little evidence for these uses. 

It is commonly sold in supermarkets and pharmacies in South Africa, such as the Dischem chain recommended in many of the posts on social media. 

Drug-facilitated sexual assault

Drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) is when rapists give their victims substances such as alcohol and other drugs. This can make it more difficult or impossible for a victim to say yes or no to sex. 

The substances involved in DFSA are often called “date rape drugs”. But advocacy groups warn that this term is misleading, because “the circumstances in which these drugs are used often do NOT involve a dating situation”. 

Many different – and often more than one – substances have been reported in DFSA cases. Research from various countries suggests that the most common substance involved in DFSA is alcohol (ethanol). 

Some studies have found that the substances most often used in DFSA might differ depending on the country. There is very little research in South African settings, but one study from a hospital in the Western Cape province also found that alcohol was the most common substance involved.

Africa Check spoke with Marianne Tiemensma, a forensic pathologist and co-author of the Western Cape study. She said alcohol was also the most common substance from her experience working in clinical forensic medicine. 

In South Africa the substances involved in DFSA, apart from alcohol, are often sedative drugs, and sometimes stimulants. Rohypnol, the drug mentioned in the post, is a drug often associated with “date rape” but this is less commonly used in DFSA than in the past

There is little information about the use of Rohypnol in South Africa, but the South African Police Service has previously reported the drug being “earmarked for sexual crimes against women”.  

How does DFSA happen?

The US-based organisation Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or Rainn, aims to prevent sexual violence. They say a drug-facilitated sexual assault occurs either when a perpetrator forces someone to unknowingly take a drug, or when they “take advantage” of someone who has chosen to use a substance.

In the Western Cape study, most cases fit the second definition more closely. Tiemensma explained that the majority of cases were “opportunistic … with most assailants known to victims” rather than the victim having been unknowingly drugged by a stranger. 

Rainn emphasises that DFSA happens in many different contexts, to many different people. It says these assaults “can happen to anyone, by anyone, whether the perpetrator is an intimate partner, stranger, or someone you’ve known for a while”.

Taking activated charcoal will probably be ‘too little, too late’

Even though activated charcoal is often used in hospital emergency rooms, this is in very specific situations: to treat people who have consumed specific drugs, given in high doses, and within a short amount of time after the person has taken the substance. 

But date rape situations often do not meet these criteria, according to experts. 

By the time someone feels “out of place” or not like themselves, like the posts say, the drug has probably already been absorbed into their body. 

In another fact-check, Politifact spoke to professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Indiana University, Dr William Sullivan. Sullivan explained that feeling “out of place” probably means the drug has already reached your brain. And since charcoal works by sticking to a substance in the gut, before it is absorbed by the body, it is too late to take it by the time someone feels anything. 

But there are also other issues with using activated charcoal in these situations. When it is used in emergency rooms, the dose and the way it is given to a patient depends on many factors that medical professionals carefully weigh up. Since activated charcoal can have side effects or affect how other medications work, it might be risky. 

Even if it is taken within an hour after the poisoning, activated charcoal is usually only effective at high doses. The dose depends on what it is meant to counteract. This means one tablet may be too little. It also can’t be used to counteract the effects of alcohol, which seems to be the most common substance involved in DFSA.  

Taking all of this together, activated charcoal is unlikely to “counteract” the effects of substances often used in DFSA. And taking a tablet in this situation might make someone mistakenly think they are safe. Experts recommend that people seek medical attention instead of relying on activated charcoal.

Victims of DFSA in need of specialised care

Tiemensma told Africa Check that there was a need for “ongoing education and awareness” about DFSA in South Africa. Brownwen Davies, forensic toxicologist and co-author of the study, has raised this point in an interview, saying that victims of DFSA were in need of specialised trauma care. 

Davies said that sexual assault survivors often feel even more powerless than usual in cases of DFSA, because they are in a more vulnerable state as a result of the alcohol or other drugs.

Conclusion: Activated charcoal won’t counteract the most common ‘date rape’ drug, alcohol 

Claims that activated charcoal tablets can counteract the effects of “date rape drugs” have reappeared on social media platforms. Charcoal is often used in emergency rooms for cases of poison, but this is under medical supervision, and is unlikely to be effective in situations of drug-facilitated sexual assault. Alcohol is not affected by charcoal tablets, and is often the drug of choice in these assaults.

We therefore rate the claim as incorrect. 

To learn more about DFSA and how to stay safe, see this article from Rainn.

Further Reading

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