Visitors To Montana Mines Expose Themselves To Radioactive Gases–As A Cancer Treatment
A defunct uranium mine in Montana, where people take an elevator 85 feet below the surface to sit amid radioactive radon gas to treat their ailments
While radon is commonly known as a hazardous gas removed from basements, people in pain travel to Montana and pay to breathe, drink and bathe in its radioactive particles. The travelers view the radon exposure as low-dose radiation therapy for a long list of health problems.
There are only half a dozen radon health mines in the United States, and all six of them are located within twenty minutes’ drive of each other in western Montana.
Elsewhere, particularly in central Europe, Russia, and Japan, radon therapy for arthritis relief is an established alternative medicine—despite the fact that no one knows quite how it works.
The Actual Truth
The Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, among others, blame the gas as the second-leading cause of lung cancer. In the United States, it is responsible for about 21,000 deaths from the disease every year, according to EPA estimates.
Although cancer doctors use radiation as a front-line treatment to destroy dangerous cells, its role in the United States in low doses for other ailments is disputed. The pandemic has recharged that debate as clinical trials across the world test whether low doses of radiation can help treat coronavirus patients.
In the early 1900s, before antibiotics were popularized, small doses of radiation were used to treat pneumonia with reports it relieved respiratory symptoms.
By way of contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regards radon as a toxic carcinogen, classifies levels of 4 pCi/L or above as the “action point,” at which homeowners should take steps to limit their exposure.
But Radon Is Used In Medical Institutions?
Radon gas isn’t the same radiation U.S. doctors use, radiation experts caution. Radon is just one of the radioactive chemical elements and, because it’s a gas, it can be inhaled, making it particularly dangerous. Sitting in a radon-filled room and targeted radiation treatment in a medical facility are as different as “chalk and cheese,” said Brian Marples, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Rochester.
“In clinical therapy, we know exactly what the dose is, we know exactly where it’s going,” he said.
In Germany, for example, where resort therapy—with its emphasis on the healing power of a particular place—is a long-established tradition, purpose-built radon tunnels are accessible by prescription only, as part of the country’s national health system.
Outside the Merry Widow Health Mine, a billboard-like banner announces “Fountain of Youth. FEEL YOUNG AGAIN!” Inside its tunnels, water seeps from the rock walls. Those who want full immersion can slip into a claw-foot tub filled with radon-tainted water. People soak their feet and hands in water or simply sit and work on a puzzle.
Those who swear by radon therapy say that, in low doses, a little stress on the body triggers the immune system to readapt and reduces inflammation.
The invisible, healing (or poisonous) air, sold by the hour, is, of course, a nearly endless, renewable resource: pegged to the half-life of uranium-238, this Health Mine’s subterranean wealth should be good for another 4.468 billion years.
Antone Brooks, formerly a Energy Department scientist who studied low-dose radiation, is among those who believe that the federal government’s no-level-of-radon-exposure stance goes too far. He pointed to research that indicates low doses of radiation potentially turn on pathways within bodies that could be protective. Though what’s considered a “low dose” depends on who’s talking.
“If you want to go into a radon mine twice a year, I’d say, okay, that’s not too much,’’ he said. “If you want to live down there, I’d say that’s too much.”