Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Fountain of Youth and Why You Won’t Drink From It

On a street near the harbor in the town of Punta Gorda, Florida there is an old public faucet built into a stone pillar that juts from the sidewalk next to a trash can. The tap is a little rusty, and the stonework is cracked but it is in remarkably good shape considering that it was built in 1926. It almost seems to exist outside of time. Then again, it should… It is the fountain of youth.

The first European to have landed on the mainland US (according to the generally accepted historical record) was Ponce de Leon. He anchored his boat, met the locals, and promptly began tearing apart the forest looking for the source of everlasting life. The tap that stands today in Punta Gorda won’t make you immortal, but it seems to help residents of the town stay healthy well into old age.

The curious thing about the fountain is that, tacked to the Spanish tiles is a sign from the city that warns would-be drinkers about the waters unacceptably high level of radioactivity. The only reason that the tap is still functional is that residents have continuously fought the city to keep it that way. The untreated water was almost shut off in the 1970’s and the sign marks something of a compromise.

It is not the radioactivity that carries the health benefits brought on by the water (reduced blood pressure, more regular heartbeat, increased regularity), it is the significantly elevated magnesium content. The water comes directly from one of Florida’s aquifers which just so happens to incase it in magnesium-rich limestone.

Magnesium is something that most people don’t get enough of. According to National Geographic 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium; and a 1977 study by the US Academy of Science claimed that 150,000 deaths per year in the US could be prevented by adding magnesium to public water. Unfortunately, cities tend to do the opposite and treat water with fluoride, which counteracts magnesium but gives you a nice toothy grin.

The fountain in Punta Gorda is a good example of one of the quirks of the human brain. Even though something is probably good for us, we can get scared off by the smallest chance of something bad happening. The benefits of the magnesium clearly outweigh the risks posed by the radioactivity. Zoltan Szabo if the US Geological Survey has said that if you drank the radioactive water at a rate of one liter a day for 70 years, your chance of getting cancer would be 1 in 20,000. Despite that, the crowds that once flocked to the fountain now largely avoid it.

It is the same phenomenon that makes people nervous about flying even though they drive their much more dangerous cars to work every day. Psychologists call it an Availability Heuristic. Since we can more easily imagine something big and complicated like a plane getting into an accident, compared with our familiar and simple little cars, we think it is more likely to be dangerous. It’s not. It’s not even close. Likewise, since the word “radioactivity” conjures up images of nuclear bombs and glowing bananas people get scared away from something as clearly helpful as a public fountain that makes you healthier.

That makes the lesson of the fountain of youth one of psychology over biology. The human brain is capable of amazing tricks and seriously flawed judgment. It’s up to you to be aware of it, think rationally, and drink the water anyway. You’ll be laughing all the way to whatever the opposite of the morgue is.

Opposite of the morgue... apparently.