New urban cave sells old respiratory treatment

TANGLETOWN — Minnesota’s first salt cave has opened its doors, offering a natural treatment that owners Scott Wertkin and Jenni Dorfsman say will help with respiratory problems.


The Salt Cave occupies a storefront on 48th & Nicollet. Pink Himalayan salt bricks line the cave space, but the supposed healing element is the unrefined salt inhaled by visitors. A generator grinds the salt up into micron-sized pieces

and distributes it evenly into the air. The salt is said to help clear out mucus from the lungs and sinuses.


Salt cave therapy is relatively new to the U.S., and few caves exist in the country.


“You could count them,” Dorfsman said. “There aren’t very many.”


The treatment method developed in Europe in the 19th century when Polish doctor Feliks Boczkowski noticed that salt miners had few respiratory problems. Certain caves abroad now serve as health and tourism destinations, like

Poland’s Wieliczka mine, which holds an underground rehabilitation and treatment center.


“In Europe salt caves are really popular,” said Dr. Margaret Smiechowski, a Vermont-based salt cave designer. “It’s an old treatment.”


Smiechowski is originally from Poland and holds a doctorate degree in homeopathic medicine. She designed and constructed The Salt Cave.


Wertkin and Dorfsman learned about salt caves on a trip to Florida. The concept caught their attention because of their own experiences with respiratory disorders: Their son spent years consistently using a nebulizer and other steroid

treatments for severe asthma.


“We hated the fact that he had to do this, but it was the only thing we had,” she said.


By the time they heard about the caves, their son had grown out of his asthma to a point where he suffered very few episodes. Dorfsman and Wertkin wondered if the treatment could have helped him rely less on medicine had they

learned about it sooner. 


Dorfsman calls herself a skeptic, but she looked into the topic and found no negative side effects of the treatment.


With the closest cave located in Chicago, she and Wertkin decided to start their own in Minneapolis. They, along with their son, now use it to help with allergies.


“It’s preventative medicine,” Dorfsman said. “People are looking for alternatives to what they’re currently doing that’s not working.”


Few U.S. studies exist on the effects of salt cave therapy on respiratory problems.


Arlen Havrilla, nurse clinical manager at the Minnesota Lung Center, consulted with Dr. Mitchell Kaye about the topic. Kaye said in his opinion there is not good clinical evidence of the treatment’s efficacy and he would not

necessarily recommend it to his patients.


Dorfsman said she and Wertkin would be interested in seeing more studies done, something they think would help draw attention to the treatment.


“This isn’t smoke and mirrors, it’s not a scam,” Dorfsman said. “The reason people are a little apprehensive is because it’s not [Food and Drug Administration] approved yet.”


Much of their business so far has come from people looking to visit the caves once for the experience. They have had some repeat customers coming in more than once, which Dorfsman and Wertkin say is necessary for long-term

treatment of respiratory problems.


Marylee Hardenbergh had visited The Salt Cave twice at the time of print. Hardenbergh has asthma and allergies and decided to try the cave for relief.


“Definitely the next morning when I woke up I could breathe more easily,” she said. 


Hardenbergh said the salt air reminds her of being at the ocean, but without the fishy smell that sometimes accompanies the experience.


“The air is just so clean,” she said.


The cave has 10 pipes that pull old air out of the room and pump in new air. Smiechowski cited this as a benefit if manmade caves versus natural caves. While natural caves have a higher salt content, manmade caves have better

air circulation, she said. 


Smiechowski said she came up with her design method by taking the old salt cave therapy idea and tweaking it for manmade spaces. She used an original plan for The Salt Cave that Wertkin and Dorfsman helped design. Wertkin

did construction work alongside Smiechowski. 


“This is what I wanted to create,” Wertkin said. “This is what I felt was best suited to my personality. I like caves. I like that outdoor feeling.”


Neither he nor Smiechowski would say much about the construction process.


“The whole technology has a trade secret,” Smiechowski said.


Secrecy helps deter people from making their own replicas without sufficient knowledge of the process, Smiechowski said.


“People think it’s very easy and anybody can do it,” she said. “That’s the problem.” 


Smiechowski did reveal that she only uses hand-mined Himalayan salt in building the caves.


“It’s clean. It’s not contaminated with any oils leaking from equipment or gasoline,” she said.


Wertkin and Dorfsman stressed that people seeking salt cave treatment should not cut out doctors visits and medicines.


“It’s not a supplement; it’s a complement,” Wertkin said.