This Fountain Of Youth Has A Little Extra Zing

The Fountain of Youth at Punta Gorda, Fla., was so popular 40 years ago, residents remember waiting in line to get a drink. But in the 1980s, testing found high levels of radium in the well. In other words, the water is radioactive — but it might still prolong your life.

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ORSON WELLES: Of course, there are all sorts of fountains. Some are beautiful, some are purely mythological. Some are silly fountains. Of course, the silliest of all, is the fountain of youth. Old Ponce de Leon thought that one was somewhere down in Florida.

SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:

Well, actor Orson Welles never found it, but lots of Floridians claim that the Fountain of youth is in their town - Punta Gorda, for instance. Margaret Baumhardt, who lives nearby in Charlotte Harbor, may not be totally convinced, but she is a big fan of the Punta Gorda fountain. She remembers how popular it was around 40 years ago.

MARGARET BAUMHARDT: Oh yeah, you had to wait in line to get the water.

STAMBERG: But in the 1980s, the Punta Gorda water was tested using guidelines set by the Clean Water Act. What they found almost closed the fountain for good. It turned out the water contains an unusually high level of radium - around 9 picocuries. That's about double the EPA's recommended maximum. In other words, the water is radioactive. After that discovery the town of Punta Gorda put up a sign to warn visitors.

BAUMHARDT: Well, I think a lot of people have been scared off by the sign on the well. I don't know anybody else who actually gets the water there anymore.

STAMBERG: Well, that sign may be scary but it seems a little bit of radioactivity might not be all bad.

ZOLTAN SZABO: Having a glass of water from the fountain is certainly not dangerous or even very risky.

STAMBERG: That is Zoltan Szabo, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey. He has tested thousands of wells around this country. He says the radium level in the Punta Gorda fountain is high, but that does not mean it's not safe.

SZABO: If that was your drinking water well and that was the only source of water you had and you drank it for 70 years, even then you'd only have the one in 20,000 risk.

STAMBERG: But Margaret Baumhardt has been drinking it for over 40 years.

BAUMHARDT: I'm 88. Well, I just drink it and I cook with it, and I make a coffee and a tea and things like that.

STAMBERG: But according to Szabo's math, even she is not in danger. In fact, the water may have something that helps prolong life: magnesium sulfate, which is very good for your blood pressure, your heart. Doesn't smell that great though.

BAUMHARDT: Well, it has that sulfur smell, you know, that smells like rotten eggs.

STAMBERG: But Baumhardt says the smell goes away in a few days. And the water is just too good to give up. It may not be the fountain of youth, but she still loves that water.

BAUMHARDT: You know, I get a lot of flak about getting the water, but I still like to go get it. The only way I can describe it is refreshing and invigorating.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUNDS OF SCIENCE")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Ponce de Leon, constantly on, the fountain of youth, not robotron.

STAMBERG: This is NPR News.

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