At a German Health Spa, Radiation Is King

ByABC News
January 18, 2001, 12:27 PM

S C H L E M A, Germany, Jan. 18 -- 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.

Im here for the first time and its 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. Im 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.

Germanys 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 towns 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.