THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - Fish nibbling was becoming a popular pedicure procedure at a Vancouver Island spa, at least until health officials found out.
Dixie Simpson, owner of Duncan, B.C.'s Purple Orchid Spa, said her business now faces ruin because the Vancouver Island Health Authority has ordered her to stop running her fish spa.
She is now asking health officials to reconsider their decision.
"It's a third of my business, if not more," said Simpson. "It could sink me. In fact, it may sink me."
The service, which began in July 2010 but has now stopped, saw clients, seated on a bench, submerge their feet in a 454-litre tank filled with 85 Turkish Gurra rufa fish.
Simpson said the water, treated by a filtration system and ultraviolet light, softened clients' loose skin. The fish then went to work, nibbling away.
Since she began offering the service, said Simpson, her spa has treated more than 700 clients, including some 300 regulars.
But only after health authorities saw a documentary on her spa this past winter was she asked to stop providing the service, said Simpson.
In fact, before opening up her business in 2010, said Simpson, she ran the idea by Health Canada, which raised no concerns.
Simpson said the health authority has threatened her with a $25,000 fine or the possibility of six months in jail if she doesn't shut down.
Dr. Richard Stanwick, the health authority's chief medical officer, said medical officials are worried about the transmission of infection.
He said the health authority commissioned a report on the procedure by an animal-health specialist.
Stanwick said while there are no studies specifically addressing fish spas, the report indicated the procedure is almost equivalent to running an aquarium in a home or business, and an aquarium-like setting can expose people to at least 11 potentially very serious infections, some of them life threatening.
"You could get sort of fish to person, and then what you get (is) person to fish to person," said Stanwick, while talking about transmission.
People can even transmit a superbug through the tank, said Stanwick.
He also pointed to the case, reported in the media, of a 12-year-old U.S. girl who will lose her hand from an infection she received from a fish tank when she was nine years old.
He said there is no safe way to operate such a spa and some infections are resistant to ultraviolet light.
"We tell people to wear rubber gloves ... and in this case we tell people to put on a pair of rubber boots before they put their feet in."
Bill Routley, NDP MLA for Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley, said he's asked the health authority to change its mind.
Routley said spas in Quebec, Manitoba, Japan and China offer the service, and he said some jurisdictions in the United States allow it, while others don't.
Routley said Simpson was not given access to any due process, noting she was not given an opportunity to appeal the order.
He said he has asked Simpson to write letters to the provincial government and the Office of the Ombudsperson and start a petition.
Meantime, Simpson said she's had to lay off staff.
She said many clients, who told her they benefited from the procedure, are upset with the health authority's decision.
For now, Simpson said only she, family and friends can use the aquarium, despite the fact she holds insurance from one of the world's largest insurance companies.
"We'll have to sit and wait it out here for a bit. Other than that, in the meantime, family and friends come in and use this, you know, to help keep the fish stimulated, and we'll see."
Keven Drews, The Canadian Press