Azerbaijan's Petroleum Spas Use Crude Oil Baths to Treat Disease

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Though we often associate ooze-slicked animals with horrific disasters like 2010's BP oil spill, in the Azerbaijani town of Naftalan, 160 miles north-west of the capital Baku, there is a clinic where visitors voluntarily flock to its famous (well, famous at least in the former Soviet Union) clinics to bathe in crude oil. The practice has supposedly been around for centuries and is believed to treat scores of illnesses, including arthritis, rheumatism and psoriasis.Azerbaijan is an oil-rich country, but the crude found around Naftalan is too heavy to be usable in industrial applications or to be exported, so it is designated for 'medicinal' use instead. A 15-day, $450 treatment basically consists of the patient sitting in a tub of crude for about 10 minutes before being wiped down by an attendant with paper towels, followed by a series of showers.

But is bathing in this substance safe? The clinic's patients swear by it, and there have been studies done by Soviet scientists which identified antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. But as The New York Times and Oddity Central reports, the active ingredient of Naftalan's crude, naphthalene, could cause cancer and is the same component found concentrated in mothballs, but also in lower concentrations in coal tar soaps used for skin problems:

Patients lower their bodies into 35 gallons of crude oil, at a temperature of 40 degrees. Many of them say the warm oil relaxes their joints and they'd love to spend more than 10 minutes soaked in black oil, but since it contains almost 50% naphthalene, a hydrocarbon deemed potentially carcinogenic by EU regulations, longer sessions could be hazardous to their health. The clinic's doctors claim millions of people have been treated at Naftalan over the years, and none of them have suffered any complications, as a result. Still, to be on the safe side they limit the sessions to 10 minutes, and no more than a bath per day, during a 10-day treatment.

Naftalan's petroleum spas were immensely popular in the 70's and 80's until ethnic war with Armenians in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh broke out. Five of the six Soviet-era petroleum spas were then converted into refugee housing. Now, Naftalan is hoping for a major revival through its oil spas, which are now targeting tourists from Russia and from as far away as Europe and the Emirates. Strange as it seems, it remains to be seen whether this kind of therapy will shed its -- if you'll pardon the pun -- crude image to take the world by storm.