DNC News


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 thoughts.

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." ( http://www.worldwidesportsmed.com/befeu.htm ) 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 treatment.
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 put forward:

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 afterwards.

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 their businesses.

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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