Radon Health Mines
Some people say radon gas is bad for you. This radioactive gas, a natural byproduct from the earth, plagues real estate sales in most parts of the US. People living in basement rooms can almost see the hands of the atomic clock moving towards their personal zero hour. But there is a clear divergence of opinion about radon in the mountainous mine country between the towns of Boulder and Basin, Montana.
A half-dozen defunct gold and uranium mines south of Helena, Montana, attract ailing tourists, who bask in radioactive radon gas and drink radioactive water to improve their health. Each summer, hundreds of people, many of them Amish and Mennonites, come to the radon health mines to relax and treat arthritis, lupus, asthma and other chronic cripplers.
With colorful names like the Sunshine Health Mine, Free Enterprise, Earth Angel, Radon Tunnel, and the Merry Widow, the mine shafts tout radon levels as much as 175 times the federal safety standard for houses. Yet, visitors claim miraculous recoveries and disease remissions in the damp, cool passages. Some have arrived in wheelchairs, then walked out on their own.
The health mines opened in the early 1950's when little was understood about the health and hazard aspects of atomic radiation. One claim is that the gas stimulates the nerves and helps the human body heal itself.
The typical vacation at a radon health mine lasts a week or two. Visitors are recommended to sit in the mine two or three times a day, until they hit the maximum annual exposure level designated by the state. The permitted total visit is determined by the radiation level of the particular mine. The average visitor is 72 years old. The mines appeal to "plain people," such as the Amish or the Mennonites, because of the "natural" healing aspects, the lack of commercialization, and the relatively low cost-per-hour for treatment sessions.
During Roadside America's visit to the Sunshine Radon Mine, we found several people in the back of the mine, playing cards, reading worn paperback novels, assembling jigsaw puzzles. When we walked in, they all turned in surprise, as if they were waiting down here for the Apocalypse, and were stunned to see more survivors.
Side niches of the passage contained bunks, comfortable chairs, and shelves of books and board games. An eerily lit fountain of water bubbled in one room.
Health mine owners generally scoff at public health scares about radon -- but they do bar entry by pregnant women or children (just to be sure). Note: Our video recording was not fogged by the radiation, and we are still alive.