In Rust We Trust 

My question for you is about a footbath that one of my girlfriends used at a spa over here in Brisbane, Australia. She soaked her feet in an electrified basin of warm water and supposedly some brown mud ("toxins") came oozing out of the pores of her feet. I expressed my doubts about the authenticity of this therapy, because I know from their "Detox Weekend" advertisements that the same spa offers Hopi Ear Candling and Chakra balancing--not fair dinkum by my estimation. Have you heard of this footbath? If you think it might work, I'll apologize and maybe have a go.


Unless your friend walked barefoot across the Outback for her appointment, I, too, would rule out mud. In fact, I'd wager a giant gargle with that dirty water that the gunk didn't come from her feet at all. If this therapy is indicative of the quality of that spa, you might advise your friend to spend her money elsewhere. For example, a couple of nights on the town would certainly be more fun and, without question, more therapeutic. Here in the States, Lindsay Lohan has popularized this particular method. We Americans like to call it a "Retox Weekend."

Electric basins are produced by a multitude of companies, but the best-known model is the original: the Aqua Detox. Introduced by Mary Staggs--a naturopath whose credentials, it has been reported, were obtained through a correspondence course ... er, I mean distance learning--this footbath was initially promoted as a breakthrough in whole body detoxification. The basic device consists of a bowl, in the center of which is mounted a metal electrode called an "array." The story went that you placed your feet in warm salted water, plugged the unit in, and when you felt a tingling sensation, that meant toxins were being pulled out of your body through the thousands of pores on the soles of your feet. Evidence of detoxification, they claimed at the time, was immediately apparent: The water quickly turned tea-colored, then progressively darker over the next 30 minutes to shades of red, brown or orange.

Give yourself five points if you've already guessed how it worked. Yes, indeed, the metal electrodes are made of iron, easily corroded by the salt water and electric current. The Aqua Detox was originally distributed across the United Kingdom, where most Brits are as insightful as you and I. In short order, debunkers and journalists secreted away eyedroppers-full of the brown water for analysis. They also successfully created a nearly identical liquid using iron nails, salted water and a car battery—no feet required. Not surprisingly, analysis found nothing resembling a toxin in either sample (metabolic waste products, industrial chemicals, diet Pepsi), but the liquid did contain an inordinate amount of oxidized iron, better known as rust. By jingoes, as they say in your country, what a surprise!

Over the past few years, the blatant deception has forced a change in marketing. Staggs, for her part, denies responsibility for the misleading interpretations, blaming them on unscrupulous therapists and salespeople--yet none of the manufacturers have changed the product design. So the question becomes: If the makers truly want to dispel the misconception that the liquid's color indicates removed toxins, why wouldn't they simply use a non-corrosive electrode? Score yourself five more points if you got that one, too. The revised benefits of the device are now conveniently non-testable (rebalances cellular energy, encourages bio-stimulation, increases microcirculation, etc.). Verifying such claims would work as well as selecting Pete Doherty to be Lindsay Lohan's sponsor.

Should I seem uncharacteristically harsh in my criticism, it is only because more than one otherwise intelligent patient has told me their own amazing tale of the miracle footbath--and their intention to complete a series of sessions costing hundreds of dollars. I do understand how comforting it may be to think that all one's problems are due to mysteriously imprisoned toxins, but rarely do we need help in removing the ones to which we're actually exposed. Our livers are quite adept at breaking down most toxic compounds for release either into the colon for direct elimination or into the blood for filtering by the kidneys. And further, with the possible exception of a college roommate who released noxious fumes through his, there is nothing of significance excreted by feet.

Detoxification weekends (or a series of them) may be the appropriate treatment for Lindsay or Pete, but spa-centered detox is generally a waste of money. And though your friend may be a lost cause, no worries, the footbath treatments won't harm her. Those aptly colored brown swirls are only figuratively—not literally--crap.

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