Fuel for the body: Crude oil bath can ‘cure’ diseases

NAFTALAN, Azerbaijan: Immersed up to her neck in a dark viscous liquid, Sulfiya smiles in delight, confident that the fetid substance will cure her painful condition.
Sulfiya, a Russian woman in her 60s, has travelled to Azerbaijan’s north-western city of Naftalan in the hope that crude oil baths at a local sanatorium will end her years of suffering from polyarthritis, a disease affecting the joints.
“This is so pleasant,” she enthuses, despite the reek of engine oil. Her dip in oil heated to just above body temperature lasts 10 minutes, after which an attendant scrapes the brown oil off her skin and sends her into a shower.
The native of Russia’s Tatarstan region said she and her friends “have long dreamed of coming” for treatment in Naftalan.
The petroleum spa resort in the oil-rich Caucasus country is a draw for visitors.
After 10 days of bathing in crude oil Sulfiya says she now feels “much better” and has even reduced her medication for the polyarthritis that she has had for 12 years.
Azerbaijan’s vast oil deposits were discovered in the mid-19th century, making what was at the time part of the Russian Empire one of the first places in the world to start commercial oil production.
Oil exports to markets all over the world are the largest sector of Azerbaijan’s economy, but the crude that comes from subsoil reservoirs in Naftalan is not suitable for commercial use.
Instead the local oil is used to treat muscular, skin and bone conditions as well as gynaecological and neurological problems.
According to a legend, which spa staff readily tell clients, the healing properties of Naftalan’s “miraculous oil” were discovered by accident when a camel left to die near a pool of oil was cured.
Some specialists warn the method has dangerous side effects. Despite the stories of past cures, the use of crude oil for medicinal purposes has been condemned by Western doctors as potentially carcinogenic.
But doctors and patients at Naftalan brush aside any misgivings and the sanatorium even has a small museum displaying crutches that once belonged to patients who have recovered from their illnesses.