The Big Box customer has a question about a big box. He wants to know if the 25-pound box of D.E. we sell out in the pool supply section is the same stuff as the smaller bag of D.E. we sell over in the garden aisle.
It’s a good question. They seem the same. If you read the labels on both packages, the list of active ingredients appears identical: “diatomaceous earth.” But the price varies a lot, with the four-pound bag labeled for garden use costing about $10 as opposed to about $20 for the 25-pound bag labeled as filter powder for pools. That’s a tempting price difference — .80 a pound vs. about $2.50 a pound.
And also, this isn’t something that’s manufactured, but something that’s mined. There’s no proprietary secret formula for something that just gets dug out of the ground, right? So isn’t it all just garden-variety diatomaceous earth?
Alas, there really is a difference. This is the odd case in which “garden-variety” actually entails a higher level of quality and refinement. The D.E. processed and sold for pest control is the “food grade” variety, and that’s the stuff that can be used to kill harmful garden insects or household pests like ants, roaches, fleas, bedbugs, etc. The D.E. sold for use in pool and hot-tub filters is processed differently to be a bit sandier, and sprinkling that stuff in your garden won’t do much more than spreading talcum powder would.
Here’s an explainer on how to use D.E. in the garden from a “consulting master rosarian” of the American Rose Society. And here’s one from a hippie-ish homesteader, who includes some good advice on how to use the stuff in a way that kills only the harmful insects and not our friends the bees. (She also has a guest-post from someone who eats the stuff to “detox,” which is something done by the sort of people who use “detox” as a desirable verb. This is safe — it really is food-grade — but I’m not going to recommend eating anything that isn’t safe to breathe, and I shudder to think about what Gwyneth Paltrow might ponder doing with it.)
Diatomaceous earth is strange stuff. It’s an ultra-fine white powder made from grinding up this soft, chalky whitish rock called diatomite. A guy named Peter Kasten first discovered the stuff when digging a well in Germany back in the 1800s, and deposits of it have since been discovered all over the world. The name comes from what it’s made out of — gazillions of tiny fossilized diatoms, a form of phytoplankton. Teensy little single-celled algae, basically. These little guys form in spiky geometric shapes that are quite sharp at a microscopic level — which is why diatomaceous earth won’t hurt your hands, but it will slice up the exoskeletons of small insects (and why inhaling fine-but-sharp things won’t do your lungs any favors).
D.E. has lots of other uses besides being an effective mechanical pesticide and filter agent. It’s also part of Nobel’s original formula for dynamite. And, as I discovered first-hand last week, it’s also used as the fine, powdery base for some brands of granular deer repellant, ensuring that the other ingredients — including putrefied egg solids, dried blood,* garlic oil — really settle in on anybody sweeping up a pile of the stuff. (If you’re wondering what that smell is, yes, it’s probably me. I apologize. I’ve showered six times since then but I feel like that stuff is still in my hair.)
Diatoms date back at least to the age of the dinosaurs, but they’re also still around as a vital part of the food chain. Those contemporary diatoms, of course, won’t be providing us with any diatomite or diatomaceous earth any time soon, as the process of fossilization takes millions of years.
And that brings us to our next question about D.E. What do our friends the young-Earth creationists make of this stuff? Here, after all, is a tangible, fluffy-white embodiment of deep time. It’s one more thing that such illiteralist fundamentalists cannot allow themselves to look at or think about. So I wonder what kind of filter system Ken Ham uses for his hot tub. (Not that a cheaper, sand-based filter would be less of a problem.) Or whether Al Mohler would consider the use of D.E. in the garden to be “unbiblical.”
The answers to such questions, as always, can be found at Answers in Genesis. The answers they supply can’t actually be found in Genesis, of course, and the creationist scam’s name, to be accurate, really should be something more like “Answers in [Defense of Our Tortured Illiterate and Arbitrary Interpretation of] Genesis,” even if that’s not quite as catchy. But you’ll be happy to know that the “creation scientists” of Ai[DoOTIaAIo]G have pondered the meaning of diatomaceous earth:
Much of the petroleum reserves found today are in large buried deposits, apparently of diatom origin. Imagine the countless billions of diatoms that must have been sorted and buried suddenly under flood conditions to produce our seemingly endless supply of oil. Large deposits of diatomaceous earth, such as those being mined in Lompoc, California, are merely the left-over glass-houses of diatoms and are used in preparing such commercial products as detergents, fertilizers, insulation and sound-proofing materials, polishes, and paint-removers.
The key words there, as in all young-Earth creationist writing, are “must have been.” Would “sudden … flood conditions” have produced the fossilized diatomite we now use in our gardens and pools and our dynamite and detergents? Well, no. That can only have happened over time — lots of time, the millions of years our young-Earth creationist friends insist cannot have elapsed because the way they want to read the Bible doesn’t allow for it. Their constant refrain of “must have been” doesn’t refer to a process that adequately explains the natural world, but rather to what they “must” believe in order to deny the actual, possible explanations. When you’ve eliminated the possible, whatever remains, however impossible, “must have been.” Or something like that.
The Ai[DoOTIaAIo]G article goes on at great length about how the geometric shapes of diatoms are evidence of intelligent design. It’s an earnest — if strained and desperate — attempt to make it safe for their followers to walk past those bags of D.E. at the Big Box without having a fatal crisis of faith. Like most such YEC safety measures, it doesn’t bear close scrutiny, but if repeated often enough in a reassuring tone, it can maybe be just enough to allow their people to get through the day — filling their gas tank, or looking up at the stars, or stubbing their toe on a bit of limestone — without having to fully acknowledge any of the omnipresent evidence that the universe they live in is far, far older than they can survive admitting.
I’m a bit disappointed that these folks didn’t provide a more specific “explanation” for diatomaceous earth, just lumping it in as one of the many things they “explain” with their dubious “flood geology.” Grand Canyon? Noah’s flood. Sedimentary rock? Noah’s flood. Fossil fuels? Noah’s flood. The river valleys of Mars? Noah’s … oh, crap, wait a minute.
I was hoping for something more creative or fanciful. If I were running the young-Earth creationist scam, I’d suggest that diatomaceous earth is the product of millions of tiny crystals of shattered firmament, destroyed at the time of Noah’s flood when “the windows of heaven were opened.” This would explain not only the existence of the otherwise inexplicable ancient fossils, but would also explain the extremely inconvenient fact that there is today no such thing as a “firmament,” which “divides the waters which are under the firmament from the waters which are above.”
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* The active ingredients list for the various brands of deer and rabbit repellents make for fascinating reading. I find myself with so many questions. Like, for example, where do they get all that fox urine from? (From foxes, obviously, yes, but how?) And if you’re going to list “dried blood” as an ingredient, shouldn’t you maybe also have to tell us a bit more about the source of that?
I’m sorry if discussing this seems distasteful or disgusting, but then this post also used the words “Ken Ham” and “hot tub” in the same sentence, and that kind of makes putrefied egg solids seem not quite so bad.