Sunday, February 17, 2013

Electric Ion Therapy, Aqua Detox: Bad Science and Rusty Footbath Revisionism

Have you ever tried electric ion therapy a.k.a. aqua detox? This therapy system works by immersing one's feet into saline water connected to an ionization device. After a while, one can see the initially clear water darkens with what claimed to be toxins from one's body. Out of curiosity I tried this a few days ago and was charged RM10 for 30 minutes of 'treatment'. I was actually expecting the 'toxins' to come out of my feet, but instead it was the metal plates in the ionization device that release the so-called 'toxins'. So in the whole 30 minutes I was being 'treated', my brain was trying to figure out the possibilities. When I was in school, I did several electrolysis experiments in Chemistry. This looks so like an electrolysis process, which means the whole thing is a fraud. Skeptical as I was, I decided to find out whether this therapy can really do as it claims.

Ray Girvan in his article “Dodgy Detox” concludes that this therapy is just an electrolysis reaction. The yellowish red particles are just oxidized iron that originate from the electrodes (metal plates). As to the brown colour, a number of critics, such as WicklowLass cited below, argue that foot detox machines are simply AC-DC transformers attached to ferrous electrodes that corrode to generate rust when used to electrolyse the saline water in the footbath.

This theory is backed up by some observers who have found by experiment that their feet didn’t need to be in the bath for the brown to appear. Ben Goldcare from The Guardian did a simple experiment to analyse the water before and after the detoxification process. It was found that the level of iron particles skyrocketed after the process. Other than that, urea and creatinine were not found in the analysed sample, meaning that there are no toxin that come out of the body.

Bravely I sent along my friend Dr Mark Atkins to have himself Aqua Detoxed. He took water samples from the bowl, which we sent off to the Medical Toxicology Unit at New Cross, south-east London. You can only imagine our excitement, especially as they charged us £200 for the analysis. And so – triumphant music – the water taken out before they switched their Aqua Detox machine on contained only 0.54mg per litre of iron (probably from the metal spoon); but afterwards it contained … 23.6mg/l. Our water, from our kitchen table setup, contained 97mg/l (and it was a bit browner).

But did it extract toxins? “Toxin” is classic pseudoscience terminology. Essentially, the Aqua Detox people are offering dialysis, through your feet. Urea and creatinine are probably the smallest molecules – call them “toxins” if you like – that your body gets rid of, in places like urine and sweat: if “toxins” were going to come out, anywhere, you’d expect those to come out, too. There was no urea or creatinine in the water before the Aqua Detox, and there was none in the water afterwards. Which means, I believe, that this therapy is a fraud.

The Guardian Unlimited article has had some impact on how the Aqua Detox and its imitators are marketed. Some marketers admit that the colors are due entirely to electrode conversion, and there is less emphasis on toxin removal and more emphasis on the “balancing” of “energy” that is not measurable with scientific instruments (and is therefore untestable.) But the bottom line is very simple. All such devices should be considered medically worthless.

Hydrogen and chlorine gas is given off in this process. The oxygen atoms from the water combine in the liquid with the salt(added to water to improve conductivity) to form hydroxyl ions. The chlorine gas is from the chloride in the salt. The oxygen in the hydroxyl ions stay in the solution. Given that chlorine gas is poisonous, this process can be potentially be dangerous to your health. And the explosive hazard posed by the hydrogen is another minus.

However did the press manage to arrive at such a misconception? Perhaps via the vendors’ own statements? Hydra Detox ( now says that its machine merely rebalances the body: “This type of machine is described as a detox machine because the response of a rebalanced body is to excrete any excess toxins via the kidneys, liver, bowels and skin AFTER the treatment” (their capitals, not mine). But a Google search finds a repeated occurrence of an older marketing tagline “Hydra Detox Foot Spas, simply immerse your feet in water and watch in amazement as the toxins are released through the pores in your feet”. Similarly, a Google search also finds many sites for Aqua Detox and Bio Detox stating that you’ll “see the excreted toxins in the water”, in texts whose near-identical content suggests that the claim was in their manufacturers’ blurb.

A research has been done in Indonesia which found that "from the electrolysis reaction, yellow, red and brown-coloured water contains Fe3+, while green-coloured water contains Ni2+. The electrolysis process also releases Cl2 which is a harmful gas. The result from the analysis showed that the first substance that come out is iron ions (Fe) which are yellowish brown, followed by nikel ions (Ni) which are green/dark green. Invisible ions such as Cr and Mn are also released. Conclusively, the colours and air bubbles that are released  in the electric ion therapy originate from the electrodes (cathode and anode) used, not from the feet.

Science expert Dr Ben Goldacre said: “It has nothing to do with toxins. It’s just basic chemistry – electrolysis. The water goes brown because metal electrodes are rusting in a salt water bath.” So even if you don’t put your feet in the water, it would still turn brown. Goldacre even demonstrated the process with some salt water, a car battery and a Barbie doll. Even Barbie turned the water brown. Here is a video that shows that the water would still turn brown even when you don't put your feet in it.

The company still claims the machine will get rid of your toxins, but not over the course of the 30-minute session. It now says it’ll kick start your body’s natural immune system, and toxins will be released over the course of a few days. Watchdog showed these claims to Dr David Bender, a senior lecturer in biochemistry at UCL, who said these new claims were also scientific nonsense.

The Aqua Detox probably won’t do you any harm – except to your wallet – but it seems it won’t do you much good either.


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