Beitou hot springs: snake oil baths?

I arrived in Beitou early on a drizzly Wednesday morning, exhausted and achy from a cramped and sleepless 14-hour flight. Fortunately, the apartment I booked had a hot springs tub and piped the jade green “magical waters” right from the source, flowing from the volcanic Thermal Valley. Hoo boy, was I looking forward to that! The first thing I did after the host left was take a shower and fill up the traditional stone tub with the sulphuric water, steaming and beautiful in its delicate light green. I stepped in, eager to immerse myself in the healing waters. I expected warm, womb-like comfort… but instead I felt like someone poured lemon juice all over my cuts. I felt microscopic cuts I didn’t even know I had. Stinging, burning and getting redder and angrier by the minute, my skin rebelled. But I stayed in, hoping and waiting to see if it got better. It didn’t. Disappointed and annoyed at myself for not taking care of my skin better, I eventually got out. When my skin kept burning and stinging even after drying, I washed it off. 

Later I read a placard at Thermal Valley stating that the water I just soaked in has a pH of 1-2.* Holy cow, that’s as acidic as it gets. No wonder my skin took issue with it. Worse than pouring lemon juice on my cut and broken skin, I had immersed in it. 

On top of being very acidic, there are signs everywhere in Beitou boasting of the hot springs’ high radium content. Wait, this water is radioactive too? Since when is that a good thing? 

It turns out that from the early 1900s into the 1970s, radium was part of the “radioactive quackery” fad. Quacks and snake oil salesmen sold products with radium in them touting their supposed healing properties. Some still do. Scientific studies have since debunked these claims and have instead found that high levels of radium exposure are associated with bone cancers. Radium has structural similarity with calcium, and after it is inhaled or ingested, it is absorbed into the blood and deposited into bone (like calcium), where it irradiates bone cells and increases the risk for cancer cell formation. Radioactivity in Beitou’s waters has also been studied by Taiwanese scientists, but from the abstract it’s unclear whether the radium levels they found were within safe limits. Hmmm… perhaps there’s a reason it’s left unclear? Maybe a multimillion dollar tourist economy?

Well, I wanted to believe in the hot springs’ healing power too. It’s hard to resist the allure of healing your body in brilliant jade water in a stunning mountain setting. The Ketagalan people who lived in Beitou long before it became a Japanese colonial vacay hot spot apparently avoided the waters. The placards at Thermal Valley state that the Ketagalan people believe that a witch (apparently a cute one; see below) turned the water “into a healing spring” to protect the area from ghosts and demons. Huh? Why would “healing waters” scare away ghosts and demons? Wouldn’t it make more sense that boiling radioactive acid spewing from the earth would scare ghosts and demons (and humans) away? 

Early Chinese Taiwanese settlers followed the Ketagalan practice and didn’t soak in these waters. They also decided to avoid the boiling acid waters. I don’t blame them. People didn’t go in  for “fun” until the Japanese colonists came and put their bodies in, realizing they could also exploit and profit from the hot springs. It then became a “hot” thing to do by powerful people and voila, a bustling tourist destination.**

Maybe my skin was onto something. Maybe my skin was trying to tell me to get the hell out of the radioactive acid bath.***  Now I’m wondering why it took me so long. I wanted to believe the snake oil. I really wanted the water to be healing and felt disappointed with how I got stung instead. It took days for my skin to recover from the dryness and redness it left. 

Disinformation runs deep and has been an age-old practice because it’s so profitable. There is science to back up the health benefits of soaking in warm water and being in nature. There are even studies that suggest acidic hot springs may have antimicrobial properties against the staph aureus skin bacteria, which can help people with eczema. But there is no evidence to back up the benefits of radium. 

I know in my bones (and my skin) that being in nature and soaking in warm water can be a healing experience. Beitou’s super acidic and radioactive hot springs sadly wasn’t that kind of experience for me. 

Now I regard the steaming jade green waters with a different kind of reverence: a liquid gift from the underworld volcanic dragon-witch spirit, meant not for exploitation but for protection of Beitou’s true nature and soul. 

*The acidic pH of Beitou’s hot springs is likely due to thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes breaking down the sulphur in the water into sulphuric acid, like in Yellowstone’s acid hot springs. Watch out for those bacteria farts!   

**During the Japanese colonial period, Beitou was primarily a “pleasure destination” for men with status, and the women were here to “entertain” them. Sex tourism remained significant even after KMT takeover. When Taiwan outlawed prostitution in the 1979, so many establishments had to close that Beitou’s economy collapsed and it was mostly abandoned until a revitalization effort began in 1999. Check out the historic illustrations advertising Beitou’s sexy women to Shanghainese businessmen. (From the Xinbeitou historic railway station museum)

***Folks have their own reasons for soaking in Beitou’s hot springs, and I want to respect that. You do you. Fortunately Beitou hot spring water gets significantly diluted by rainwater as it flows down from Thermal Valley, so hopefully most people are not getting significant exposures to radium.

5 thoughts on “Beitou hot springs: snake oil baths?”

  1. Sophy, that sucks that the waters did not turn out to be healing! And you learned some important history, thanks for sharing with us. My sister did not take me to Beitou, we went to Ba Yan Ye Xi Hot Spring. Not sure if it’s any better than Beitou but we didn’t have the experience of acidic waters or green water. This place, we hiked into and it out in the wild.

    1. Hi Ly, thanks! Yes, it sounds like you hiked out to hot springs in Yangmingshan National Park, where the hot springs have a higher pH (hence less acidic). It looks like Ba Yan Ye Xi is a white sulphur hot spring with a pH of 2-3, so it’s less acidic than the Beitou hot springs. There are other hike-out hot springs at Yangmingshan that have carbonate waters that have a neutral pH ~7. It’s so interesting how diverse and different hot springs can be! I’ve learned a ton about them when trying to understand what happened to me in the Beitou waters.

  2. I’m enjoying learning about the historic context. I am so used to being dropped off at one place or another via my parents, but I’m realizing how little I know!

    1. Hi Sunny! Yes, that was how I experienced Taiwan too before I embarked on solo travel as an adult. We just scooted between extended family homes in the northeast, so I only saw that small part of Taiwan. It’s been so eye-opening to experience how diverse this little island is.

  3. love these posts – a mix of adventure, personal lessons, history, science, culture. hope the ouch has healed 🙂

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