The fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon is said to have searched for 500 years ago could be a radioactive well beneath an abandoned Florida lot. At least that’s what some Punta Gorda locals claim. There, residents have been drinking the legendary water since the late 19th century.
Back in 1926, the coastal town raised money to construct a green-tiled fountain for the aquifer that still stands today. Many swore by the water's mystical properties, and at the peak of its popularity in the mid-20th century, the spigot’s handle was used so often it needed to be replaced every six months.
The frenzy surrounding the Punta Gorda fountain has since died down, largely thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972. All public water sources needed to be tested for a number of contaminants, and the fountain's tests yielded some alarming results. The water was shown to contain 9.2 picoCuries of radium-226 isotope per liter, exceeding the EPA’s recommended radium limit of 5 picoCuries per liter. The city council moved to plug up the well for good and instead supply the fountain with city water, but public opposition eventually won out.
Despite the well’s concerning—though not fatal—levels of radiation, people are still placing faith in its life-extending properties. It turns out there could be some science supporting this century-old superstition. In addition to radium, the fountain's water was shown to contain high amounts of magnesium, a beneficial mineral that most people are deficient in. The water also contains magnesium sulfate, a.k.a. Epsom salt, a compound frequently added to bath water in order to ease stress and pain.
The fountain may not be as popular as it was in its heyday, but there are still plenty of believers who aren't deterred by the “Use Water at Your Own Risk” notice posted beside it. Some visitors show up with plastic bottles and large jugs to fill up with water and take home with them. One gentleman was known to use the water to wash his car, while another elderly woman claimed to use it to brew her tea. When asked about the water's health risks, Punta Gorda resident Donna Sanford told NBC2, "Well, I'm not necessarily glowing."
[h/t: National Geographic]