In 1951, an engineer at a uranium mine near Butte, Montana, stumbled upon one of the atomic age's more unusual—and still highly controversial—findings. His wife, who suffered from debilitating bursitis, found relief from her pain after several lunchtime visits to the mine.
The cure? Prolonged, regular, low-level exposure to radon gas.
It seems to defy logic that a deadly substance, a suspected cause of lung cancer, one that local governments spend millions to eliminate from homes and schools, could have medicinal value. But brochures from six radon "health mines" operating between Butte and Helena proclaim that soon after the alleged reports of health benefits circulated, a stampede of sufferers demanded to be irradiated in these caverns. A recent trip to five of the mines confirms that the hope of ailing visitors remains strong.
Radon is an inert, odorless element occurring naturally in almost all types of rocks and soils. A by-product of radium, which disintegrates to form radon gas, it can enter the body through air or water. The health mines offer exposure by inhalation, through the skin in baths, and in radon-doctored drinks. The alleged health benefits are many and varied. Anecdotal evidence suggests that radon may stimulate the endocrine system. Mine visitors testify to relief from allergies, arthritis, bursitis, gout, asthma, lupus, emphysema, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, enlarged prostate, eczema, psoriasis, sinusitis, headaches, and some diabetes symptoms. Radioactive baths are supposed to lower blood pressure. Some mines even offer therapy for arthritic pets.
Mine operators recommend that visitors spend a total of 32 hours—the maximum annual radon exposure permitted by the state—in the mines. Many visitors stay between 11 and 16 days to allow for three visits per day. Each hour in the mine requires a three-hour radon-free interval. Per-visit rates range from $2.50 to $5.00 an hour. All of the mines are smoke-free and fragrance-free.
There are testimonials on the walls, wooden beams, and loose-leaf notebooks throughout the mines. "I feel so great since our visits to the mine, I just can't believe it!" writes Phyllis N., a visitor to the Free Enterprise Health Mine in Boulder, Montana. "I've never had to take my pain medication since my return. The joint pains and terrible headaches and fatigue are a thing of the past." Joe S. writes: "A year ago I couldn't dress myself or get out of the bathtub without help. My feet were so swollen I couldn't wear shoes. At first I felt like I didn't get any results from my time in the mine. But now I've been deer hunting, danced a couple of times, and played my guitar. I can even type a little. We'll see you next year."
I am visiting the Sunshine Radon Health Mine near Butte with a friend who has complained about sore knuckles and toes. A scientist, she scoffed at the idea of finding a remedy in radon but agreed to model for me. I knew from researching the sites that many people don't want to be photographed. For other projects, I had been in harm's way at various nuclear test sites; again, I am in a radioactive environment. After the first hour, I pack my camera gear and emerge into the sunlight. In the mine operator's office, my breath causes the Geiger counter on the counter to chatter. The buzz is disturbing.
Most visitors are retirees. Many suspect the medical and pharmaceutical industries of favoring high-priced practices and drugs, of conspiring to keep them away from less expensive therapy. Others use the mines as a kind of resort where newly found friends have dinner together and take side trips. Anita M. wrote, "To say that I was skeptical would be quite a monumental understatement—desperate times call for desperate measures. I took 20 one-hour sessions underground in 1993. Five weeks passed. I began to notice an almost overwhelming sense of well-being—even a feeling of strength—something foreign to me for the last 25 years. Living close by allows me regular attendance. In my opinion, God has given us each the opportunity to make an informed choice for this alternative to drug therapy."
After a long break, I go back into the mine. I try to limit my visits to the prescribed health formula—one hour inside, then three hours out. The mines are not easy to photograph. Corners are abysmally dark. Visitors are wary. The Amish, believers in homeopathic relief, come to the mines in great numbers but are offended if they are photographed. When I set up my tripod, people leave; this is a media-savvy population.
After a day, even three or four hours outside the mine does not significantly reduce my radioactive breath. I try conscious exhaling, almost hyperventilating as a couple passes by. "What's wrong with him?" I overhear him say. "Full of fear," she replies. I avoid the water. After taking a shower, I realize that I have immersed myself in a radioactive bath. Without thinking, I spit out as much saliva as I can bring into my mouth.
But the evangelical faith of the visitors stays with me. "The doctors told me there was nothing they could do for me. . . . After time at the mine for a few days, the pain in my hips and legs went away. . . . I'm now able to clean and vacuum and do many things I haven't done in years. I believe it is God's way of healing and I praise him for it," writes Marie K. of Winnipeg. Bobby and Brenda S. pen an ode: "We're here again, where we should be / To relieve our pains, as many will see. / We've been to the Mine and feel much better. / Bobby went down in shorts, no sweater / Thinks the more exposed, the better. / Give me a jacket, it's too cold for me! / Been coming six years, missed only one / That again will never be done! / Bobby was in bad shape, he suffers with gout / We come to Free Enterprise to knock it out. / The mineral water, we will always drink / It helps us also, or so we think."
My friend's arthritis has receded in the months since our visit. My breath is no longer radioactive. Perhaps the point is not whether the therapy actually works; it is the idea of a health mine, removed from the harmful paradigm of Earth's destruction and exploitation and placed within the context of healing, that is hopeful. While it may be difficult to clinically prove the benefits of radon exposure, we've opened the door to a different interpretation of the mine in Western society. The testimonials will continue.
ADVERSE REACTIONS MAY OCCUR
Claims of radon's healing powers are not limited to the western United States. Spa operators in Austria, Russia, and Japan, among other countries, tout the radon component of their underground baths and chambers.
But before you rush off to the mines for the cure, consider that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sees radon as a human carcinogen and the nation's second leading cause of lung cancer. A recent National Cancer Institute study of 68,000 miners—who were exposed over many years to high radon levels—showed that they are dying of lung cancer at five times the rate expected for the general population.
Many health experts consider the radon levels in the Montana mines harmful. "At levels this high, you're depositing into your lungs radioactive energy that can disrupt your DNA. You're killing cells," Christie Eheman, a Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist, told Tributary magazine in 1996. "Sitting in the mines is like undergoing hundreds of x-rays."
Radon advocates claim that most radon research focuses on repeated, even lifelong exposure to very high levels instead of occasional "therapeutic" doses like those offered at the mines. Even some skeptics agree that more research is needed into the mines' effects, good or bad, on human health.
About radon health risks:
Environmental Protection Agency
American Lung Association
About Montana mines:
Also see The Kansas City Star's article on the popularity of radon health mines among Amish and Mennonite people: www.kcstar.com/plain/stories/mine22.htm
From Double Take (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (4 issues) from Box 56070, Boulder, CO 80322-6070.