When charcoal has been treated with oxygen, it becomes “activated charcoal.” Its pores open up, creating tons of surface area. This activated charcoal can then absorb substances that have an odor or strange color. Thus, it is useful as a water and air purification substance.
meg707 is correct; in short, activated charcoal acts like a sponge and “soaks up” substances like some ingested poisons.
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