Lake Natron in northern Tanzania is notorious for killing and preserving dead animals. If you died in its waters, its high levels of sodium carbonate would mummify your body. But instead of taking a swim, what would happen if you took a sip?
Would your insides become mummified? Is there any way you could survive? And why could other animals drink this mummifying water, but not you?
You’ve decided to try quite a toxic cocktail. And it has three main ingredients that could cause severe damage to you. There’s the highly alkaline liquid created by sodium, carbonate and chlorine. Lake Natron has a pH of 10.5, which is only slightly lower than the pH of ammonia.
And if that’s not enough to scare you, the water also has microscopic blue-green algae called cyanobacteria. It tints the lake red and produces chemicals that can fatally damage your cells. And the final dangerous ingredient is… salt. Even if you could survive the burns and the toxins, the salt would cause your demise.
You might be wondering why it would be a bad idea for you to drink this water when you see flamingos quenching their thirst. Do not be fooled by the flamingos.
These flamingos evolved to survive despite the unique conditions of Lake Natron. Their legs are covered in special scales, and their tough skin protects them from getting burned. They can drink this super hot water. Too salty? No problem. They have special glands in their head to remove salt from saltwater.
Too much toxic algae? They don’t mind. Their colorful plumage comes from a pigment in the algae that contaminates the water.
They’re one of the few animals that thrive in Lake Natron’s toxic environment. But if you ignore my warning and take a sip, what would happen as this dangerous water travels through your body? Right away, you’d burn your lips and tongue. The lake is flooded with underground water that can be as hot as 60 °C (140 °F).
But this would be nothing compared to the chemical burns you’d experience next. The corrosive water would continue burning your mouth, esophagus and stomach. Your insides would feel like they were on fire. And, if you drank enough of this water, the alkaline liquid could burn a hole in your stomach.
Your abdominal pain could be crippling. And while your stomach is burning, the cyanobacteria contaminating the water would make you feel nauseous and could give you diarrhea. To make matters even worse, you’d start feeling very thirsty. Lake Natron has high levels of sodium and chlorine. Together, they can combine to create sodium chloride or salt.
So if you continued drinking the salty Lake Natron water, your body would make you pee more water than you drank. This would make you dehydrated. And the more salty water you drank, the thirstier and more dehydrated you would become. Eventually, you’d die. Hopefully, you have a bottle of freshwater nearby.
You would probably survive the immediate and painful consequences of drinking Lake Natron’s water, but it could leave your liver damaged forever. And if the water burns a hole in your esophagus or stomach, you’d need to get medical treatment right away. Otherwise you could get an infection.
The toxic algae could cause muscle weakness, joint pain and a sore throat for a few more days. So leave Lake Natron to the flamingos. And stick with toxin-free freshwater. Now if you really feel the need to drink questionable liquids, have you ever tried to drink a lava lamp?
- “Ph And Water”. 2021. usgs.gov.
- “Lake That Turns Animals To Stone? Not Quite”. Marc Lallanill. 2021. livescience.com.
- “Africa’s most toxic lakes are a paradise for fearless flamingos“. Rose, Paul. 2021. CNN.
- “Bases – Ph Values”. 2021. engineeringtoolbox.com.
- “Our Beautiful Planet: Tanzania’s crimson ‘stone animal’ lake”. dw.com.
- “Lake Natron, Tanzania”. 2021. earthobservatory.nasa.gov.
- “The Facts About Ammonia”. 2021. health.ny.gov.