Radioactive Remedy

Radon therapy: one person's poison is another person's prayer


| September-October 1999



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."