~ April 14, 2018 ~

~ Originally published in GFBA Forum
March 2006

~ Revised/Published in Backyard Poultry Magazine
Feb/March 2014 ~

DE. A Holistic Lesson.

As herbalists, we not only use herbs and natural products from the Earth (of which I would include DE), but we use them in a holistic manner. The definition of Ďholisticí means the importance of the whole with the interdependence of its parts. We are mindful of which herbs we use, how our collecting impacts the plant and its growing environment, the impact to other beings that live and interact with it, and their dependence upon it. When wild-crafting, we learn to leave a plant population in a healthy way for it to continue to propagate. We sometimes decide the best thing to do is to leave a certain stand of herbs alone, and move on to harvest somewhere else. We must realize that the herbs have other different functions in the environment beyond our human use and recognize our gathering is only part of its existence.

When I first learned about DE many years ago, I instantly realized it did not fit into the holistic model I try to follow as an herbalist, and so I developed an alternate and more harmonious protocol for dealing with pests by using, for example, aromatic herbs (Herbal Pest Management, BYP June/July 2011). I would like to offer a few insights about my concerns with using DE.

History and Use

Many of us may know that diatomite, or dichotomous earth (DE) is the prehistoric remains of diatoms that are now part of sedimentary rock that started millions of years ago. This fossilized skeleton rockís main constituent is silica, along with some trace minerals. The silica gives it a composition of being both hard and highly absorbent because it is also porous. Poultry use dirt, sand and clay for dust bathing to rid themselves of mites and other parasites, and this has long been observed by humans. In fact, the ancient jungle fowl were probably the first species to teach humans that dust is a repellant to insects. From that starting point man has been experimenting with trying to find a way to protect his agriculture from pests and disease with both organic and inorganic substances.

In 1940, with the discovery of DDT and other toxic chemicals, the growth in the development of chemical pesticides changed everything. By the 1950ís, chemical pesticides saw a dramatic increase of use in agriculture because of their tremendous success. Ten years later, largely due to the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, raising concerns that DDT was in fact polluting our environment, it was later banned. DE was discovered in America in 1839 and its early use was with dynamite as an absorbent and stabilizer. By the early 1900ís itís use expanded to include building materials, polishing compounds, filitration, filler material in rubber, paint, roofing, and paper which is still largely itís uses today. DE is either in a natural state which is food grade, or treated to high heat, which is called calcined and used only for filtration.

Destructive to the Environment

Although chemical pesticides have their own sets of problems on the environment, DE has it owns impact by the way it is gathered. DE is mined in large open pits because its deposits are found at or near the surface of the ground. Open pit mining, also known as strip mining is very hard on the environment. It affects the soil, surface water, groundwater, the vegetation growing there, not to mention adding chemical residues left from the mining methods.

Even today mining companies can pay little heed to protecting the environment during the process (at least those that escape regulation or oversight from watchful eyes). Even though the volume of DE used as an insecticide is a very small percentage of the industryís total sales, just be aware that your basic DE product takes some destruction of the Earth for it to be produced and used.

Use as an Indiscriminate Insecticide

Among its myriad of uses, it was discovered that DE could be used as an insecticide. There are many theories how it works, but the most commonly cited is that due to its abrasiveness. DE destroys the waxy cuticle of the bugís outer shell, causing the bug to lose water (dehydrate) and die. Depending on their particular anatomy some insects are more vulnerable to DE dust than others. Those with large surface areas, thin and less waxy cuticles, and grain feeders are more susceptible. It is kind of scary that scientists cannot even agree to how it actually kills the bugs. How can we be sure what it is actually doing when applied to the outside environment?

DDT had its own problems due to indiscriminate use, and I see that DE has a problem with its own uncontrolled application as well. Poultry keepers use DE indiscriminately and can spread it all around on the floors of coops and in runs. They put it in nesting boxes and in food. There are no instructions, and the application is left up to the whim of the keeper. There is no control in the environment as it is a lightweight substance, it can easily be moved around by foot traffic, or even the wind. This means that not only pests may be killed, but also beneficial bugs as well. If the poultry keeper has an infestation, that is saying that there already is an imbalance occurring, and not only would a DE application be a short-term solution to that problem, but could also be harming beneficial bugs as well. This shotgun approach will not fix the root problem whether it is due to overcrowding of space, improper litter maintenance or a flock on a poor diet with weakened immune systems. The better route to flock health is the more holistic approach: clean coop, fresh healthy wholesome feed, clean water and plenty of on-range time.

Impacting the Health of Your Chicken

With DE applied to the poultry yard, chickens are going to pick at it and eat it like many things they find on the ground and this would be a concern to me. Ingestion of DE has been studied on rats and has showed no toxicity to them. I am always loathe to extrapolate studies on rats (mammals) to the avian species no matter what the study. But, in any case I will approach it from what I know about silica in the herbal world.

Silica makes up 85% of DE, and in the herbal world there are many herbs that contain silica as well. There are no herbs that come close to the percentage of silica that DE contains. My knowledge of silica as an herbalist is that it can be a very helpful substance. It can help strengthen fingernails and hair structurally, as well as cartilage and bone. But herbs like horsetail, nettle and oat straw that are high in silica also contain other constituents in the plant as well. The most wonderful thing about herbs is that they contain constituents that can balance or enhance their other constituents based on the bodyís need in the application. DE contains a tremendous amount of silica and contains no "smarts" like herbs do because it is an inert dust. Also, when using herbs for the silica value, they are processed for application in ways to remove the structural abrasiveness as otherwise it could be an intestinal irritant. Due to this abrasiveness of the DE structure, I think there is a strong possibility it could be an internal tissue irritant in the gut of the bird, which could cause chronic inflammation. This inflammation over time, could degrade the health of your chicken. So if you are using DE for the silica or trace mineral health benefits, I think using herbs would be a much wiser choice.

And if your chickens are not eating it, they could also be inhaling it. Chickens have respiratory systems that are easily irritated by lots of dust; and their lungs could most certainly be irritated by DE. Due to its structure, DE has lots of jagged edges while dirt or sand do not. In both these issues, no overt problems can be seen, yet continual irritations in the body can certainly build chronic inflammatory conditions to help facilitate bigger health problems to happen.

Although DE may be a natural substance, I donít think it falls in line with a holistic practice for our poultry. There are many other ways to use herbs and natural products from our environments that can mimic what nature does to keep balance. To me DE has many similarities to the problems that chemical pesticides have. They both work on nature, not with it. Contrary to the arbitrary and potentially harmful use of DE, I find a more holistic practice of flock management well worth cultivating and far more rewarding and beneficial to the well-being of our feathered friends and our environment.


Original Article. Susan Burek, Copyright.

Moonlight Mile Herb Farm © 2018 Susan Burek