DNC News: The Footbath Scam
March 5, 2005
Subject: Foot bath treatments that claim to pull
toxins from the body are probably a scam.
In this day and age we are exposed to far more toxic substances than we
would like to be. We read about the millions of tons of mercury
dumped into the air by power plants, the pesticides washed from agricultural
lands into our water supply, and ubiquitous leaching from no end of industrial
plants, landfills, and toxic waste sites. We carry around a far greater
load of toxic stuff than we want. It is sensible and reasonable
to seek ways to rid ourselves of this unhealthy burden.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me what odd fads people will get excited
about when it comes to alternative medicine. Intelligent, well educated
people will suddenly suspend any glimmer of common sense to "believe"
in some new treatment, especially if it claims to pull toxins from the
body. One in particular that has surprised me with its staying power
is the "detoxing foot bath." Rather then disappearing after a short initial
burst of interest, these foot soaks have caught on. Since I'm asked
about them regularly, I am going to take a few moments to write down my
There are a number of companies manufacturing similar products. The one
we hear about the most often here in Denver is "The Detoxification
Foot Bath or BEFEU (Bio Electric Field Enhancement Unit)" which the company
claims, "detoxifies the whole body more effectively and faster than any
herbal or fasting protocols with little or no stress to the patient."
) All the baths on the market appear to be similar; they consist of
a foot bath into which the patient places their feet for treatment. During
treatment an electric current is run between two electrodes in the water.
The polarity of the current is reversed at varying intervals depending
on the equipment. The current supposedly draws toxins from the body
into the water. This process is illustrated on the websites with
time freeze photographs. The water rapidly becomes rust red.
The websites promoting these machines have charts which correlate the
water color with the toxins being drawn off.
I scratch my head in amazement trying to understand why anyone would believe
that this actually happens. It is so implausible a chemical mechanism
that it hardly warrants serious consideration and evaluation. You
would think that anyone about to believe in such and unlikely procedure
would first demand proof, especially when proof should be so easily obtained.
Two things would improve my opinion of these machines: show that
the water contained toxins that weren't present prior to the session or
show that the patient had less toxins after a series of treatments.
Saying that the water discoloration is proof is silly.
Testing water samples is easy. Obviously this would need to be compared
with a dry run: what happens when you run the machine without someone's
feet in it. We test patients regularly for heavy metal toxicity
and then monitor their treatment with follow up tests. There are
well accepted testing procedures for doing this. None of the websites
advertising these machines post any data.
Every website though does have pictures of the water before and after
Careful experimentation suggests that the color change occurs whether
or not there are feet in the bath. The discoloration apparently
comes from metal ions drawn into the water from the electrodes. One of
the websites has a fast motion video of the water changing color.
You can actually see the initial color coming off of the electrode in
the corner of the bath and not the feet.
Explanations for the different color changes in the water have also been
In the July 10th, 2003 New Scientist, Galen Ives of Sheffield, England
suggests that the water can become frothy from the sodium hydroxide produced
by the electrolysis, reacting with skin oils to produce soap. Salt
is added to the foot bath and depending on its concentration will cause
various gasses to form. With a small amount of salt, you get hydrogen
and oxygen. With a stronger salt solution, you get hydrogen and
chlorine. What concentrations are used in foot detox aren't stated, but
in some cases it appears to be in the chlorine-generating level, as subjects
report smelling it. They think odor comes from their own bodies. A colleague
of mine, Dr. Michael Gazsi who practices in Connecticut, points out that
many of these machines put a small band of silver on the electrodes.
The silver when it goes into solution will turn the water black.
Ben Goldacre writing in the Guardian in September, 2004 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/badscience/story/0,12980,1294819,00.html
) describes analyzing the water after a treatment. The only
change found comparing the before and after samples was a jump in iron
content. None of the common blood toxins such as urea or creatinine
had migrated into the water.
None of the company websites selling these machines offer any evidence
suggesting any toxic burden carried by people prior to treatments decrease
The webistes offer a multitude of anonymous testimonials by people saying
how much better they feel. Again the scientist in me would love
to see a blind test using a Dr. Scholl's Foot bath for comparison.
Many of the testimonials are from chiropractors and other practitioners
raving how popular the treatments are and how profitable they are for
A patient told me the other day how much better she felt after a foot
bath session, how relaxed and rejuvenated and asked me why. Well
of course most of us will feel better after one of these treatments.
Sitting still for half an hour with your feet in warm water will make
you feel better. You should feel relaxed afterwards. In fact
it isn't a bad idea to soak your feet after coming home from work.
A three buck Rubbermaid wash basin and hot water may work as well.
Add a cup of Epsom salts and it will work even better.
Chemicals can be rapidly absorbed through the soles of a person's feet.
If you don't believe this, rub a paste of garlic onto your feet and try
breathing at someone ten minutes later. Yet there is no reason to
believe that the reverse will also happen. There is no evidence that these
gadgets draw off anything from the body. If they did pull chemicals
out from the body, why do we assume that toxins would come out and essential
chemicals stay in?
This doesn't mean that running an electric current through body tissue
is without effect. Years ago as a student I was trained in a technique
known as Diathermy in which we used a probe to run a tiny electric current
through tissue. The current, though imperceptible, was enough to
cause slight tissue damage and eventual scarring of the targeted tissue.
We wanted the scarring to occur; we were treating hemorrhoids, and the
scarring would tighten them up helping the patient avoid surgery.
Could these gadgets be doing something useful? Sure, anything is possible
but when promoting a new and unusual idea that goes against logical assumptions,
the responsibility is on the promoter to prove benefit. Or at least you
would think it is. It seems for the average person, seeing is believing
and the dirty looking water is all the proof they need.
Alternative medicine by definition means stuff that mainstream medicine
doesn't readily accept as legitimate. Practices such as these footbaths
simply reinforce the common view point that alternative medicine is a
mixture of quackery, poor science and naive stupidity. There is
no reason to suspend common sense, solid reason and a scientific mind
when looking at alternative methods of treatment. Unfortunately
to promote these foot baths requires one to do all three.
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