THE DIRT ON DIATOMACEOUS EARTH
by K. J. Theodore
DIATOMACEOUS EARTH (DE) is not ‘dirt’. In plain English it is naturally occurring crystalline silica, found in the earth. Another understandable description would be razor sharp microscopic diatoms (the crystalline silica skeletons of prehistoric aquatic plants) with intricate geometric forms - think microscopic snowflakes. The breakdown properties of diatoms in our environment are similar to that of glass. No type of acid will break it down - so it is not broken down in the digestive tract. (Hydrofluoric acid will break it down but that is extremely poisonous.)
Although there is some discussion as to whether DE is largely noncrystalline, samples can be found to contain varying amounts of crystalline quartz, so for the purpose of this article, I’ll assume we cannot guarantee that all DE purchased for the purpose of using as a natural parasite control agent, isn’t crystalline in nature – and therein lies a certain risk.
The use of DE has become quite common among both fanciers and backyard flock owners for a variety of things, such as a natural insecticide, a natural wormer, and to control odors. I’ve seen suggested uses from mixing it right into poultry feed for ingestion to sprinkling it down on the floor prior to adding new bedding. There is more than one form of DE. ‘Food grade’ is usually the only version recommended for use with poultry. Other grades are for use in things such as swimming pool filters.
DE works as an insecticide by making microscopic cuts in the flesh of a worm, which in turn, makes the worm dehydrate and die. By using it in the feed, fanciers believe that the DE becomes a natural wormer by killing the worms in the gut by the same method. However, I have heard this disputed by some Veterinarians. In theory, if the microscopic cuts on the worms, and the subsequent dehydration were the reason for the parasite’s death, then it would stand to reason that DE would not be effective in the gut. Since the gut is a moist environment, the worms would not dehydrate.
Fanciers also believe that DE controls odors in the pen when sprinkling it about prior to laying down new bedding. And it is often added as one of the ingredients in a homemade dust bath for chickens.
I have some concerns about the use of DE that I would like to share with you. The further research and decision to use it or not is strictly up to you. I personally do not use it, but I know many fanciers who swear by it. My concern is that there seems to be a general consensus out there that would indicate that most people believe this to be a ‘natural’ product with no health risks. My desire is to give you some things to consider on the down side – since all I have seen has been on the up side.
First, by its very nature and structure, once ingested or inhaled, I don’t believe that the bird can expel this material easily, if at all. It is considered a serious human health risk if inhaled, and exposure to it occupationally has been the subject of much controversy with OSHA and NIOSH. It is believed to cause diseases such as lung cancer (silicosis), and carries some of the same risks as exposure to asbestos. You should never breath the dust created by DE if you work with it around your birds – wear a mask if you do.
DE absorbs 1.5 to 4 times its weight of water and also has an extremely high absorption rate of oils. Food grade DE is commonly used to keep things dry and from ‘clumping’, as in pancake and cake flour, etc. Industrial grade DE has been used to control or absorb large spills. Mixed into the poultry feed for ingestion, I would imagine that DE could have the same affect. I am concerned that it could rob your bird of needed hydration, and oil based vitamin supplements, etc. A loss of hydration can be a serious event for any bird, but especially a hen in production. An accumulation of DE in the crop or the gut has the potential of causing a blockage.
I am not sure how effective DE can be to control internal parasites, but I am concerned about its use on an otherwise fragile bird that may be suffering from a mild case of coccidiosis or bacterial enteritis, in which cases the intestinal lining would already be raw and fragile. I would imagine that the DE could become a further irritant under those circumstances. A gloriously healthy bird with a great gut may be in no danger whatsoever, but I know from poultry health studies that many gut infections go largely undetected by the fancier.
For the same reason that it is recommended by OSHA that a dust mask or respirator be worn when working with DE, I do not recommend its use for a bird’s dust bath. They would be breathing in the silica at an alarming rate, and I don’t believe they can absorb or expel the vast majority of what they’ve brought in. This may explain some of the cases of asthma-like breathing that can occur in poultry with no apparent illness or treatment success.
It may be very true that the use of DE in the pen under bedding is a great odor control agent, but again, one must consider the fact that chickens scratch and create ‘dust’ – which both you and your birds breathe – perhaps without even knowing that it is floating in the air.
I realize that this subject will bring some debate by those who believe in DE religiously. I understand your commitment to the product. The purpose of this article is simply to make sure that those who have made a conscious decision to use DE, have done so after considering the risks. In many cases, it may in fact prove to be very effective in the short term. However, I receive more and more email from fanciers who would like not only good health for their birds, but also long life – and I believe that the use of DE is counterproductive to that goal.
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