Legend has it Native Americans used it to care for the sick or elderly. In the early 1900s visitors began flocking to Ashland to bathe in it. And almost exactly 100 years later, many locals still describe it as a miracle drink.
But does Lithia water — available from fountains in the Plaza and in Lithia Park — really have health benefits?
Dr. Mark Bradshaw, an Ashland psychiatrist, said that although lithium can have a mood stabilizing effect and is used to treat mania, the level of the chemical in the fountains is much lower than standard treatment doses.
Ashland’s Lithia water has about 6.71 milligrams of lithium per liter of water, according to July tests, the most recent on record in the Public Works department.
A standard dose for a medical patient would be 1,200 milligrams per day, Bradshaw said.
“A person would have to drink about 150 liters to get that dose. It would take a whole lot of water and I think people would probably get water toxicity first,” he said.
Bradshaw doesn’t, however, discount the idea that the lithium in the water may be somewhat therapeutic, he said.
“There’s not been any studies done on low lithium doses, so I can’t say for sure,” he said. “We do know that it has a psychogenic effect, so we know that there’s some potential to have those effects at lower doses. I wouldn’t say there’s nothing to it.”
Bradshaw said he doesn’t think the levels of lithium in the fountain water are high enough to be dangerous because it’s difficult for most people to drink more than a few swallows of the sulfur-smelling water.
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates water quality, has no limit for the amount of lithium allowed in water.
“I guess they’re just not really concerned about it,” said Jim Clark, a Public Works technician. It is rare for a natural water source to have significant levels of lithium, he added.
The amount of lithium in Ashland’s Lithia water naturally varies slightly, Clark said.
In February tests showed 8.8 milligrams per liter, slightly higher than the tests showed six months later. Testing procedures may also account for some of the variation, Clark said.
The water is tested two times per year at a well on city-owned property that is rented to the Ashland Gun Club and near the municipal airport.
City tap water, pumped from a reservoir at the base of Mt. Ashland, has undetectable levels of lithium and most other chemicals.
Steven Petrovic, an analytical chemistry professor at Southern Oregon University, said he thinks people feel differently when they drink Lithia water than when they drink tap water because of all the hype about the mineral water.
“I’m sure there’s a certain amount of a placebo effect. I think certainly if you mention the word lithium, someone’s going to get some idea in their head,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone could really drink enough to feel the pharmaceutical effects, because the levels are pretty low.”
But bathing in Lithia water, instead of drinking it, may be beneficial, Petrovic said.
“All the disabled ions in it may have an effect. We’re told to bathe in Epson salts, which is basically magnesium sulfate, and there’s no reason to think this mixture of minerals may not have a similar effect,” he said.
Whether it’s because of the hype or actual health benefits, Lithia water still draws visitors to Ashland, said Bill Reeves, who works in the information booth near the plaza fountain.
“Certainly if there’s a group, usually you’ll find the ‘I dare you’ thing,” he said. “It’s always a focal point for the visitors. They usually try it.”
But Reeves isn’t convinced the water has any health benefits, he said Tuesday.
“I don’t have any idea,” he said, proceeding to take a swig from the Lithia fountain and then shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
Ashland resident Matt Lear, however, who stopped by the fountain the same day, said he’s certain drinking Lithia water has positive effects.
“When I take a long walk in the park, I take a big drink of it and I feel good. So I’m sure there’s something to it,” he said.
“I know people have been coming here for 100 years and the attraction was the Lithia water.”
And to many — for better or for naught — it still is.