Each year, hundreds of desperate patients seek relief from extreme pain in Montana’s retired uranium mines.
The Free Enterprise—a lavender building slapped on a hillside less than two miles outside of town—is a former uranium mine. Uranium eventually decays into radon: a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas.
A few hundred patrons visit the facility each year simply to sit here and breathe it in. They come from far corners of the country, desperately seeking relief from whatever ails them.
In the mainstream medical community, radon is perhaps best known for its ties to lung cancer. The gas emits radioactive particles which, when inhaled, can damage the lungs, even at very low exposures.
Practitioners of radon therapy, like those at the Free Enterprise, believe low-dose radiation exposure has profound therapeutic benefits, including relief from chronic pain.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that radon levels higher than four picocuries per liter of air (4 pCi/L) should be remediated. At the Free Enterprise, radon levels average about 1700 pCi/L, but fluctuate anywhere between 700 and 2,200 pCi/L.
In the United States, radon therapy remains largely under-researched and unaccepted by modern medicine. There are only four health mines in the entire country, all of them located in a southwestern sliver of Montana between Boulder and Basin, both nondescript old mining towns.
In parts of Europe, Japan, and Russia, on the other hand, taking a dip in radon-rich hot springs is a centuries-old practice, one sanctioned by national health care, covered by insurance, and prescribed by doctors. Given the obvious paradox radon therapy presents, how does a patient justify the risks?
By the time clients walk through the door, Free Enterprise manager Patricia Lewis explains, some are experiencing the kind of pain that makes suicide look like an attractive option. “Like a bullet in my head—that kind of pain,” she says.
Facing such pain, anyone would do whatever was possible to rid themselves of it. High risk holds little threat when suicide has become an option.
Studies on low-dose radiation exposure suggest that cell damage prompts compensatory processes that
- stimulate cell repair,
- decrease free radicals, and
- activate proteins that prevent inflammation.
Whether the specific types of radioactive particles emitted by radon have these same effects is still under-researched.
Some studies have found that a host of inflammatory rheumatic diseases may benefit from exposure to radon, including ankylosing spondylitis—a type of arthritis that can cause the vertebrae to fuse together—fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and degenerative joint conditions like arthrosis.
Mine visitors often claim that a few visits each year reduces their pain enough that they can rely less heavily on prescription medicine. Others turn to radon because they cannot stand the side effects of their medication, or because they have found that nothing else works for them.
Forty-six-year-old Rayna Duenas visits the Earth Angel Health Mine several times a year, but she drinks radon water from a free spigot outside the mine daily.
Duenas still has bad days—mornings when she’s stuck in bed, or her legs give out, or her short-term memory is hazy. She says health mines help sufferers of chronic pain find hope again.
“The thing with people that have pain is they’re survivors,” Duenas says. “You tell your brain, ‘I’m going to get up, my feet are going to hit the floor, and I’m going to continue walking.’ People think people are weak when they have pain. But those are some of the strongest people that have more drive and determination to fix themselves.”
Barbra Erickson, a professor of anthropology at California State University–Fullerton who has studied health mines for nearly a decade, has always been intrigued by how sick visitors manage to summon the courage to go there.
Anyone who has chronic pain can understand this level of desperation, especially with the CDC guidelines threatening to take away our opioids these days.
“I went there expecting it to be a bunch of crazy people, and I came away with a completely different idea,” Erickson says. She found that clients re-adjust their explanatory models—the behavioral processes that allow us to understand illness—when considering radon. “You just start believing it because you hear from so many other people who seem like very rational, intelligent, educated people,” she says.
And what’s wrong with that?