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 ...

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Euro soaks visited