Since ancient times, humans have been in hot water–literally. Soaking in hot, mineral-laden water has long been used to ease aches and pains and even touted as a cure for far more serious conditions.
The Romans and Greeks built many spas in places where hot springs bubbled to the surface, and in Europe, many famous towns exist primarily because of a source of natural mineral water: Vichy, France; Bath, England; Baden-Baden, Germany. Recently, a new town joined that distinguished list: Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
The new Temple Gardens Mineral Spa is pretty typical of the spas being built today (and spas have seldom been more popular). Today, you can not only soak in hot mineral water, you can also take a mud bath or get wrapped in algae (which never appealed to me, since, as a hardy soul who has swum in Saskatchewan’s shallow lakes, I have been wrapped in algae quite enough already, thank you very much).
Unlike most places where spas are built, Moose Jaw doesn’t sit on a natural hot spring. Instead, the water in the Temple Gardens comes from an underground source that would never have found its way to the surface if someone hadn’t been drilling for oil back in 1910. Small amounts of oil and natural gas did emerge from the well, but what chiefly emerged were vast amounts of water laden with minerals (about 10,000 parts per million). The well had tapped into water-soaked porous rock, the remnants of an ancient sea bed.
For many years the water was piped into Moose Jaw’s swimming complex, the Natatorium, but the well was sealed off in 1971 because the wooden casings were deteriorating. For the Temple Gardens, a brand new well was drilled to a depth of 1,350 metres. The immense pressure at that depth forces the water to the surface at a rate of 760 litres per minute, so that no pumps are needed to make it flow through an 800-metre insulated pipe to the spa.
The water is warm–45 degrees Celsius–because, although we think of underground structures as being cool, the fact is, the deeper you go, the hotter it gets. Rocks three or four kilometres down are hot enough to boil water. The heat within the crust and upper mantle of the earth comes primarily from the decay of radioactive elements. A few more kilometers down, it’s so hot that the rock itself is molten. In places where this molten rock is closer to the surface than usual, you get volcanoes, geysers–and hot springs. But as the Moose Jaw spa shows, even in geologically stable areas like the Great Plains, the heat starts to build just a few hundred metres under our feet.
In Moose Jaw, though, the water is actually cooled before it’s pumped into spa’s pools. Dissolved iron is removed and the water is purified (by passing it through a fine clay filter) before it is reheated and released into the pools.
Water that circulates out of the pools is purified again, then reinjected into a different geological formation through a second well, insuring that a supply that is already considered “virtually inexhaustible” remains that way.
The water in Moose Jaw and other spas contains many different minerals simply because water, given enough time, can dissolve almost anything, including the rock that surrounds it. The water in the Temple Gardens spa, for example, contains significant amounts of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, bicarbonate and sulphate, plus lesser amounts of boron, bromine, fluoride, iron, silicon and strontium, and trace amounts of arsenic, barium, copper, iodine, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, phosphate, rubidium, sulphide, tungsten and zinc. Some of these elements combine to form compounds: magnesium sulphate, for example, better known as Epsom Salts.
The purported health benefits of soaking in mineral water have sometimes verged on the miraculous, but the fact is, there’s little scientific evidence that soaking in warm mineral water is any more healthful than soaking in ordinary warm water. That alone, however, is a good way to treat strains, sprains, fatigue and backache, and most of all, to reduce stress, which has definite health benefits.
Those people who claim that soaking in mineral water cured them of this or that are probably enjoying the well-known placebo effect: they think the water has great restorative powers, and so for them, it does.
Which means that, in Moose Jaw and other spas around the world, people will continue “taking the waters” for many years to come.