S C H L E M A, Germany, Jan. 18, 2001 -- As NATO Balkans veterans fret about health risks from exposure to uranium munitions, a generation old enough to remember the last great European war is happily paying for a bit of extra radiation exposure.
Every day hundreds of elderly Germans splash around in the spa waters at Schlema, which contain low levels of radon, a radioactive gas generated from the decay of uranium, with the conviction it can cure ailments such as rheumatism.
“I’m here for the first time and it’s rather nice," said retired farmer Gerda Wolf, 67, after a swim in a large pool overlooked by hills famous for their rich lode of uranium. “I’m not afraid of radiation … I plan to come again next week."
As in the current debate over risks faced by NATO soldiers because of the use of depleted uranium munitions in Kosovo, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf War, experts disagree over possible dangers from radioactive spas such as Schlema.
German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, who said this month that soldiers were not at risk from contact with depleted uranium shells, raised eyebrows by comparing their exposure to the radioactive spas.
“For example, one gram of depleted uranium that was used for this type of ammunition is about the same amount of radiation as in 10 liters of water from the Bad Gastein spa," he said.
Germany’s handful of radioactive spas have a tradition dating back a century and even in this post-Chernobyl age, more sensitive to radioactivity, local officials are betting on the radioactive spa to revive the town’s future.
Schlema, with a population of about 6,000, enjoyed its heyday during the Nazi era, when it boasted of being the most radioactive spot on Earth and had more than 100 hotels and guesthouses to receive visitors. It thrived even during World War II, receiving its record number of spa visitors in 1943.
After the war, the victorious Soviet occupiers realized the uranium in this region about 150 miles south of Berlin was too valuable for just splashing around in. They sent in an NKVD secret police general who once ran gulag labor camps to set up a giant mining operation for Soviet nuclear warheads.
The spa was destroyed and visitors barred as mining continued until the collapse of East German communism in 1990, when the reunified Germany inherited an ecological disaster, even though much of the uranium was by then already extracted.
'Strongest Radioactive Source In the World'
“The strongest radioactive source in the world was right here," said Peter Wolff, 58, head of the ongoing local cleanup operation, which is expected to cost the region $6.3 billion. He led a visitor to an elevator shaft and descended into the maze of dimly lighted mining tunnels where he has worked since 1960.
“No one needed to be forced to mine here. Miners earned lots of money back then, twice as much as in other jobs," he said. “It was known that uranium was radioactive, you learned that in school, but it’s like flying: There are accidents but you think it won’t happen to you."
The danger was always there: Experts say more than 5,000 miners died from radon-related lung cancer, which developed while they mined uranium for the Soviet Union after the war.
Yet few dwell on the past, least of all those running a $21 million spa facility that opened two years ago. “Radonia," a statuary tribute to radon personified as a water nymph, stands naked outside, drinking from a jug of irradiated water.
“Two thousand patients die from aspirin a year," said spa director Steffen Matthias. “There is not one known case of a patient dying from radon.
"It’s more dangerous to take three flights a year to London or New York," he added of the solar radiation exposure people receive at high altitudes.
Spa marketing director Evelyn Weiss says radon treatments not only cure ailments, they revive visitors’ sex lives. As is normal in Germany, male and female guests share a naked sauna.
At the government’s Radiation Protection Agency, officials say the radon spa is fine for those suffering health problems.
Less Pain Means Less Medicine
“One does get a bigger exposure to radiation here but one cannot say it is a bigger risk," said spa official Winfried Meyer. “Patients who receive the spa cure have less pain, so they need less medicine. The savings in medicine, which itself can pose risks, is worth the small exposure."
Germany is not alone in promoting radioactive spas, which still operate in Austria, the former Soviet Union, Japan and elsewhere. But some experts say the healing powers of radioactive radon are dubious and risky.
“Other aspects of the ‘spa experience’ may be beneficial overall, but the irradiation of internal organs by radon and its decay products or exposure to radon per se is unlikely to be helpful," said Otto Raabe, professor emeritus of radiation biophysics at the University of California at Davis.
William Field of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health says patients suffering from arthritis may feel better after a hot bath in ordinary water.
And he says there are health risks from radon. “Numerous epidemiological studies of radon-exposed underground miners and the recent residential epidemiological study we performed in the United States indicate that radon gas exposure causes lung cancer," he said.
“The radon spas should not serve as a substitute for conventional health care," he continued. “While it is possible that the radon gas exposure does cause some beneficial health effect, owners of the spas should inform the spas’ users that there might also be some risk involved."
In Schlema, nearly everyone discounts such risks and cites a 1992 study that said radon was more effective than hot water. “On weekends we have little babies swimming here," Weiss said. “We couldn’t do it if it were dangerous."
Just in case, workers in the area of especially concentrated radon baths wear a dosimeter to measure radioactivity.
At the spa’s main swimming pool, a disco version of the Beatles “All My Loving" started playing as a geriatric water aerobics class got under way. Gray hair and candy-colored bathing caps bobbed up and down.
Off to the side rested Gerd Richter, 66, who once mined uranium in the nearby hills. Now he is turning to Radonia again, hoping the nymph can cure his aching joints after decades of tough work in the mines.
“I’ve noticed that it does help," he said, adding that he now comes twice a month.
Spa director Matthias said the baths are also the only hope for the region’s economic woes such as high unemployment.
“Economically the whole region has suffered the shutdown of many firms since reunification. This is the only future for the city. … It would be very sad here without spa tourism."