Wednesday, June 20, 2012


An interesting debate: last month I visited the Vulcano mud pools on Vulcano island, South Italy. On the entrance gate they list a whole set of do's and don'ts with one curiously mentioning that those below 15 should not take a mud bath nor should a mud bath immersion last longer than 10-15 minutes. The reason? Because the baths are mildly radioactive ...

Ummm, but is radioactivity not always bad for you? Well, ...

I recently stumbled over an entry on World Nomads, entitled: 
How Dangerous is the Radiation in Japan? 
It highlights the difficulty in understanding the data involved: after the Fukushima nuclear crisis  an exclusion zone was created around the source, on the basis that no-one should be exposed to radiation higher than 20 millisierverts (ms). 
Strangely it then notes an exemplary hot spring near Ramsar, Iran that has a radiation level of 250 ms / year (compare a x-ray with 0.2 ms)! With not only no negative effects but it actually is cited as a source of health ...
This article states the following:
'The Ramsar area in Mazandaran, Iran has one of the highest levels of natural background radiation in the world. It comes from the radioactive elements present in the hot springs that Ramsar is famous for. Folks living near the hot springs get the equivalent of one chest X ray every two hours throughout their lifetime. One would think that this would create a high rate of cancer among the natives; surprisingly it doesn’t seem to. In fact, when radiation researcher P. Andrew Karam took blood cells from native Ramsaris and exposed them to radiation, he found that the Ramsar cells are unusually resistant to radiation damage'.
The Wall Street Journal (March 9, 2012) adds it's own thoughts on the subject of radiation threats and benefits in Japan:
'Baths known as “radium hot springs” have existed in Japan for hundreds of years, their owners proclaiming the virtues of lightly radioactive radon gas as a way to clear skin, restore youth, and even, incongruous as it may sound, cure cancer'.
So do radium hot springs suffer from the negatives of Fukushima near-meltdown?
'Not a bit of it, it seems. Operators say regular clients were mostly undeterred, with some claiming extra attention following the disasters actually brought new customers their way'. 
It continues with an example of the increased attention due to the Fukushima crisis:
'At the nearly 700-year-old Murasugi hot spring in Niigata prefecture, meanwhile, the events of March 11 [2011] actually spurred business as interest in radiation increased, according to an employee. For any nervous customers, the resort offers a free pamphlet on the merits of a dip in the 107-degree water and information about radiation levels'.
Not everybody understands ...

Adding to the above, another example of a health benefit: in Miharu, Japan, it is noted that
'...  in the years after the spa opened in 1914 some association was made between the radiation and the reports of improved health relayed back from visitors who stayed at the onsen'.
Then there is the case of hormesis. What?
'Hormesis refers to the positive effect of poisons when delivered in very low doses'.
So states this web site which is dedicated to promoting natural radioactive treatments in low dosages. And believing.

But radon is also listed a major source of lung cancer, though the same source also notes that it is unclear whether or not radon can have positive effects. Even the IAEA seems unsure on the negatives / possible positives:
'With all the knowledge so far collected on effects of radiation, there is still no definite conclusion as to whether exposure due to natural background carries a health risk, even though it has been demonstrated for exposure at a level a few times higher'.
The Toronto Post (22 September 2012) cites the Greek isle of Ikaria: 
'Tucked away in the Aegean Sea is a small, rocky island called Ikaria, where residents on average reach the age of 90. Here are a few island secrets of longevity researchers have picked up after years of studying the dreamy getaway. 
6. Dip into a Hot Spring
Radium is a nasty word in America, but the Ikarians have sworn by radium-rich hot springs since the 4thcentury. Reduction in joint pain, stress, and skin irritation are often cited as benefits'.

Understanding radioactivity
A good short explanation:
'Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the decay of radium in the soil. Radium is a decay product of uranium. Uranium is present in almost all rocks and soil and material derived from rocks'. 
And how do hot springs contain radium / radon? 
The Wikipedia radon page:  
High concentrations of radon can be found in some spring waters and hot springs. 
To be classified as a radon mineral water, radon concentration must be above a minimum of 2 nCi/L (74 kBq/m3). The activity of radon mineral water reaches 2,000 kBq/m3 in Merano and 4,000 kBq/m3 in Lurisia (Italy). 
Radioactive water baths have been applied since 1906 in Jáchymov, Czech Republic, but even before radon discovery they were used in Bad Gastein, Austria. Radium-rich springs are also used in traditional Japanese onsen in Misasa, Tottori Prefecture. Drinking therapy is applied in Bad Brambach, Germany. Inhalation therapy is carried out in Gasteiner-Heilstollen, Austria, in Świeradów-Zdrój, Czerniawa-Zdrój, Kowary, Lądek Zdrój, Poland, in Harghita Băi, Romania, and in Boulder, United States. In the United States and Europe there are several "radon spas," where people sit for minutes or hours in a high-radon atmosphere in the belief that low doses of radiation will invigorate or energize them'.
According to this Greece based source
'We call radioactive those springs which have been measured and are from 3,5 μ Mach and above, independently of their chemical composition and temperature. They are sub-divided into those of low, medium and high radioactive content'. 
Confusing? Too much!

Besides those mentioned above I found a number of other known radioactive soaks:
  • Paralana, Australia
'The amount of radioactivity is harmless and less than given off by a watch dial'

This episode begins with Marika and Madame Curie enjoying the warm relaxing waters of her onsen (hot spring), she tells Marika that the waters contain Radium, a radioactive isotope that she and her late husband discovered. Madame Curie than gives Marika a little lesson about radiation and radioactivity, and she explains to Marika the three basic types of radiation, alpha, beta, and gamma. (source)

Lesson learnt?
Radium / radon can occur naturally in hot springs. Higher concentration levels have been associated with certain health benefits, but science is still on the fence ... So be careful. Or not so?

Am I right?

Oh, and it seems Europe has quite a few radioactive soaks ...

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Styx, Roger and the Romans too

Hot springs landing
So in the claim for fame category, there are not many places that actually boast of an international airport with the afixation of hot spring added to it, albeit in Italian. But such is the case for Lamezia Terme.

But possibly it's just a gimmick to attract an expected flow of soakers. 

Wikipedia mention that Lamezia Terme is a municipality existing since the late sixties of the last century and actually consist of 4 towns, one of which is Sambiase. On the history of Sambiase it adds: 
'The baths of Sambiase was in a famous Roman itinerary Tabula Peuntigeriana so it was a important destination. The thermal baths of Sambase were great and famous place of comfort and rest for wayfarers, soldiers, messengers, in the ancient times they was called Aque Ange'. 
Apparently thereafter nothing much occurs for 10 centuries until:
'Robert Guiscard with his brother Roger during the difficult attempt to conquer Calabria, stopped to the thermal baths together with their team of soldiers'.
After that there's no more historic account of the soaks, so it seems. At least according to wikipedia. The hot spring is also not mentioned in wikipedia's main sights of Lamezia, so what has happened?

From the main Lamezia commune website some of them mystery is lifted. If my interpretation of google translate is correct and with reference to Le Terme di Caronte and the following paragraph: 
'Leggiamo sugli < Annali Civili del Regno delle Due Sicilie. Fasc. 87, Maggio e Giugno 1847:...parecchie delle nostre acque sono andate perdute coll'andare degli anni, per sprofondamenti tellurici o per le formidabili alluvioni del torrente Bagni. Solo l'acqua di "Caronte" è tuttora intatta e nella quantità e nella qualità e nell'azione terapeutica'.
Earthquakes and floods were the main reasons mentioned in 1847 why of the four hot spring sources only one, the hottest (Caronte), remained. 
But what about nowadays?

Modern day Lamezia tourists also seem not to be directed to any potential soaking. Tripadvisor, Wikitravel's Calabria & Virtualtravel nada. No mention of a hot spring. Rough Guides, Lonely Planet and Fodor same same. 
It seems the only acknowledgement of Lamezia Terme for tourists is it's airport! maybe they should rename the place to Lamezia Aeroporto!

Keeping it in the famiglia
Anyway, I found myself with some time to kill, having to wait for my flight out and decided that a little dedication should enable me to find the local soak. 

Additional information on internet reaped from the site of, the spa establishment:
'Terme Caronte’s rich mineral water originates from underground springs and flows through limestone and crystalline rock before surfacing. The temperature of the water, around 39ºC, is due not only to the high geothermal gradient of the area, but also to the extreme depths of the springs and the speed with which the water rises; the water finds an outlet in the Catanzaro fault line, which runs from Capo Suvero to Capo Staletti. The two springs are among the most important in Italy, due to their acclaimed therapeutic properties.
The water has been officially classified as “sulphureous-sulphate-alcaline-earth-iodic-arsenical”. These qualities of the water are recognisable by the yellow-greenish colour and by the hydrogen sulphurous smell. These properties are essential in the treatments used at the Terme Caronte Spa, and can also be found in the revitalising mud baths'.  
Unfortunately adding these kind of photo's hardly encourages a visit.

'To make the most of our treatments, each session at our Beauty Centre is adapted to suit the needs of our clients. Some of our most popular treatments include exfoliation treatments, mud packs for face and body, lymph drainage, arama balneotherapy (balneotherapy is the total or partial immersion of the body in thermal water), all of which are carried out under the watchful eye of our highly trained and qualified staff'.
And how it sells itself:
'Terme Caronte is a modern spa dedicated to satisfying the needs of its customers. We strive to strike a perfect balance between the latest technology and a full appreciation of our rich historical and cultural heritage.
The Spa benefits from a state of the art “Wellbeing” zone, dedicated to relaxation, improving one’s general health and the treatment of blemishes through the rich, revitalising mud baths. The Terme Caronte Spa provides an ideal place to prevent, treat and cure skin ailments in a pure, natural and welcoming environment'.
I just wonder if the aforementioned Romans and the teams of soldiers of the past had to be waited on by the white coats?  How many of those brave souls could afford the cheapest treatment, an inhalation: a breathing cap over nose and mouth through which one inhales the sulphurous gasses?

Not my cup of hot water? 

Two positives though: one, the terme is family run since 1716 which gives it a uniqueness. Part of this is their efforts to establish a museum, in Italy that can take some time .... that's the two.

No pay for the ferryman
Or actually three, as it also points out where the terme is located, a fact that most tourist related sites overlook.

Still not much to trod off to. The above mentioned spa website and the way it sells itself is unappeasing, little local character, same-same experience as is all over the globe, catering the posh and loaded, etc., etc.

If I had not looked up Terme Caronte, that is. There is a enticing blog entry by Lesley Peterson concerning the Terme:
'The spa's symbol is Caronte (or Charon) himself, the boatman of Greek myth who ferries the dead across the Styx.  There are free spots to soak alongside the road just opposite the spa and here, near the source, it is easy to imagine Charon poling his way across the Hades-hot, underground river'.
But it actually the accompanying photo's which show that a thorough soak is on the cards.

So off I went. It seemed straight forward, from the town of Sant'Eufemia Lamezia, walk the road up to the hills and you'll come across the spring. 
However the road was a long dreary, straight and busy stretch of road with absolutely nothing to add as a distraction. Buses were seen, heading the other way, but not where we were heading, drats. 

An hour and half later the road had thinned out, traffic was gone and it had started to wind itself through the village of Caronte, a typical blink and you'll miss affair. 

Going by the prevailing odour, we were near and there, just beyond the reaches of the village, along the banks of the river, is a delightful pool of hot water. A huge car park is nearby but other than a few other soakers nobody around. The surroundings are far from pristine but the waters look very good and clean, time to soak!

From a wall beside the lower side of the road water flows into a triangular pool. The water then flows to a basin to collect the water which is probably pumped back to the spa which is located on the other side of the road, further upstream. 


Another thought occurred, public transport is non-existent, well the twice daily bus just left as we arrived, yea! 
Slog back? No we hitch-hiked, still allowed in this part of the globe! Well worth the effort.

Euro soaks visited