Radon Gas and the Believers

Andrew C. Gottlieb

I get Geigered—to measure my personal level of radioactivity—before I enter the Merry Widow Health Mine. I register a measly, unradiating 0.1 millirads with barely a click from the Geiger counter. This is, or should be, normal. But I’m about to get dosed by radon gas, and the ‘before’ measurement is crucial to assessing the after-effects of one of the most intriguing and ironic features in the heart of mining country: health mines. 

In the fall of 2008, I spent a lot of time in and around the tiny town of Basin, Montana. Basin, population 250, is a seemingly ruined, poverty-filled stretch along a frontage road threading off of Route 15 between Helena, the capital of the state, 40 miles to the north, and Butte, the famous mining town, 30 miles to the south. This is the middle to south-end of the Upper Clark Fork watershed. The Wild West. The heart of Montana mining territory in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Basin anchors an area littered with poisonous mine tailings, remnants of Superfund sites and cleanups, and all the gorgeous geology of an ancient, now post-ice age wilderness.

Basin’s main street runs about a mile of pavement—then dirt road—before dissolving into a rutted track inclining away into the hills on private property, not ending exactly, but diverging from town land to ranching or mining property, privately owned though wild as ever. The narrow Boulder river runs shallow and fast beside the main road, bubbling along, promising trout. For much of the day, there’s no traffic, let alone any sign of humans. Aside from the river, the only sounds are the trills of cedar waxwings drunk on choke cherries, and the click of grasshoppers. It’s hopper season when I’m there, and they’re sprinkled across the road like spice. Handfuls of grasshoppers leap in the air—popcorn, I think—as I walk, the Morse code of their clicking and humming conspiratorially filling the air. One could assign the humming to the power wires, picturing government agents secreted away in deep Montana fallout shelters and transmitting code through the Basin lines, or, like the Geiger counter, measuring radioactivity in the soil, the air, and the people in these small towns. But it’s the blackwinged hoppers causing the fuss. 

This region, covered with the remains of gold and copper mines—dangerous open holes and potentially cancerous tailings—is also home to health mines, old shafts in the hills that now are organized, private entities selling entrance to suffering people—not all of them elderly—who sit deep in the mines for a few hours a day in an attempt to get rid of pain. As I explore, I meet members of what I come to realize are whole communities traveling annually from around the world to sit in these shafts, a sub-culture of health mine devotees; I can’t help but think of cancer-filled celebrities traveling to small countries in search of miracle cures. Psychic surgeries. Spiritual healings. The Virgin Mary appearing on a block of Gouda. I’m not indifferent; I’ve suffered chronic pain, and before my father’s death in 2002, he’d spent a lifetime fighting multiple sclerosis, a disease requiring endurance in the face of a steady, painful physical deterioration.

The circumstantial evidence is manifest. While doing laundry at the RV park that serves the mines, I meet a man who tells me his fibromyalgic ex-wife gets complete relief. “She goes home free of pain,” he says, patting his spaniel, a lively mutt who bounces around the room as we talk. “Me, I’ve got bone spurs on my feet and spine. On my neck. Ever had those? I could barely walk. My doctor took pictures. Was amazed at how many I have. After mine-sitting, I’m pain-free.” 

This man reminds me of one of my farmer uncles. He’s in his sixties, stocky and muscled, with a ball cap and beard. Overalls. A hardy type who hunts, drives a big-engined diesel truck, and isn’t afraid of a long day of hard labor, of changing the land, bare-handed. 

“Know what’s most amazing?” he asks. “I’ve seen old, arthritic dogs who can’t barely walk leave a mine fully recovered, jumping around. Running.” 

I want to know how it works, what magic is happening here deep in these hills—near a Superfund site no less—a magic so reliable that RVs return annually and retired seniors rent cabins and vacation here for the relief they discover. 

I’m not a chemist, and I failed chemistry in high school. But I take a deep breath and start reading. What’s claimed, in various mimeographed sheets the mine hands out and in the explanations of employees and non-employees, is that low levels of ionizing radiation—specifically various forms of radon gas, a by-product of uranium breakdown in these hills—does something good to the body. I juggle an impressive array of unofficial information, as well as seemingly published sources. The Merry Widow Health Mine hands out an official-looking sheet with what seems to be an abstract from a 1982 article published in a journal called Health Physics. Its brevity aside, the scientific data—collected in Austria and Germany, where health mines and radiation therapy have been in use as well over the past 30 years—seems to indicate that low-level radiation therapy boosts the immune system, increasing enzymes (in my handout listed as SOD, GPX, Catalase) that then act to boost cell rejuvenation. There’s also a sentence about increasing hormones: enkephalin, endorphin, insulin, histamine, adrenaline. Low-dose radiation apparently does this, too. All this rejuvenation then leads to healing and lessened pain. 

I have to reflect on this limited data: I do not know what SOD stands for, nor does the information at the mine explain further. I’m in an area of the country where a cell-phone signal is rare, let alone a good internet connection. I have to drive seven miles to get groceries. I’m not about to uncover a throughly-researched phenomenon. What I find is a marriage of carefully selected, supportive data, and circumstantial evidence provided by the sufferers who feel they’ve been helped. For me, the vocal evidence remains the most fascinating. After all, if at age eighty-five someone is leaving a session of health-mine therapy pain-free, who’s to argue. Pain is pain. If Jack Daniels walks pain-free from a session at the Merry Widow Health Mine, does it matter if the cold, deep shaft in this mountain is the world’s largest, strangest placebo? That question stays with me as I drive around the state. 

The bare, grassy hills around the Jefferson county area are sprawling and beautiful, and could be easily mistaken for the California slopes of the Central Coast. They’re a tawny, golden-brown color, a warm, wildwood cross between hay, wheat, gold, and split wood. But here, the patulous shoulders of the Coast Live Oak and California Scrub Oak are replaced by the tight, conical torsos of spruce and pine, and the wider, brighter Quaking Aspen. Thin, gnomonic, and aligned toward peaks, the needle-leaf trees greedily crowd the gentle and steep slopes, clustered together like underfed teenagers waiting for concert tickets. But its impossible to go very far without seeing a sudden dark opening, the sloping, rotting framing of an abandoned mine entrance, or the colorful, dangerous scree sloping downhill: the remnant tailings from the ore processing that once happened here, spilling from a now filled-in shaft that one hundred years ago would have been busy with miners like so many ants at an anthill. 

Only a few of these mine shafts have been converted to health mines. Most accessible shafts have been cemented in, dynamited shut, barred off, or gated and padlocked to protect the deliberate or accidental explorer. The most prominent mines post warning signs. But the tailings remain, and Basin, Montana is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site, added to the National Priorities List (NPL) in 1999. Superfund is a program created by the EPA in 1980 to establish metrics and classifications around how badly a geographical area has been contaminated by human use or misuse in order to prioritize and optimize a clean-up. The official name of the bill that created Superfund is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). If a site has made it onto the NPL, it means it’s scored poorly enough to need longer-term, extensive clean-up. The May 2008 EPA Five-Year Review Report for Basin is available online, and it’s scary stuff. Soil has been removed, whole yards bulldozed, a belated plastic surgery for the environment, a facelift for the poisonous surface soil, replaced by new, clean topsoil. In 1990, the EPA found soil contaminants in the Basin schoolyard above safe cancer risk levels, and suggested limiting children’s exposure to possible soil ingestion. 

Herein lies part of the character of this region of the country. Most of the mining is long finished, but the tailings and other environmental dangers remain. And yet here are caravans of people arriving to spend time in the very mines that have threatened healthy living in the area. 

No one mentions any possible risk from sitting in the health mines. It’s radiation, after all, the byproducts of uranium breakdown, ‘offgassing’ as they say in synthetics manufacturing. I can’t help but wonder at the downside of experiencing low-level radiation ten days a year for twenty years. Won’t one get cancer? At the mine, it’s patiently explained to me, the newbie, that the levels of radon and radon daughters (another chemistry term I struggle with) in the mine are far lower, for instance, than from a normal x-ray. That it’s a different form of radon than that accumulating in some houses and causing alleged poisoning. As I explore, the language continues to come at me in a limited form: some terms are sophisticated and technical, while others are softened with vernacular, as in ‘radon daughter,’ but it’s all within the selectively limited arena where the real answer seems to be: we have no idea, but it’s making Grandpa Don feel better.

At the same time, I resist being a pure skeptic. I want to successfully juggle science and reportage, effect and placebo. On the Q&A sheet, the mine offers this in response to the question about which problems can be treated with radon therapy: “Symptoms of arthritis, rheumatism, gout, allergies, asthma, Parkinson’s, migraines, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, lupus, cataracts, emphysema, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, depression and others can experience relief…”. I love the suggestion of the broad scope of Dr. Ray’s Magical, Mysterious Cowboy Tonic. One dollar a bottle! Out here, in the middle of the Wild West, it seems only fitting. 

It’s easy to chuckle, but I meet no one who complains about their mine experience or is even slightly dismayed. To the contrary, every single person I talk to who has visited the mine for themselves or with a spouse tells me incredible stories of pain relief and grateful returns to a normal life. The Geiger counter in the main office is meant only to be an additional verifying fact of the great success of these low dose treatments. The veteran visitors who sit deep in the mines don’t bother with something as silly as the Geiger counter. They’ve felt the pain relief. They know it works. The Geiger counter is for the newbies, people like me, the skeptics. The outsiders.

“You should drink the water, too,” says a young lady behind the counter in the office, the person who turns out to be the General Manager of the mine. She’s young, attractive, a woman one might expect to see working at Trader Joe’s. She points to a spigot outside the office. As I watch, an older man walks up to it and fills a gallon jug. “Drink some every day along with sitting.” 

It turns out she’s a friendly, self-declared bohemian who’s lived in Basin for about seven years, many of them without electricity or running water. “I did two years of college studying naturopathic medicine, but I didn’t finish. Now I work here, at the mine. But I also run an independent naturopathic product distributorship. I’m trying to start a general store in town, too.” 

“Basin could use that,” I say, knowing it’d be easier than driving seven miles for bread, coffee, and half & half. 

“I sell clothes on eBay, too. Buy them at thrift stores. My boyfriend is a carpenter.” 

She owns a cabin she’s trying to sell, as well as an old VW Microbus that she replaced with a new Volvo. She exhales and talks about how busy she is, and how much stress she feels, and I’m honestly surprised, because life in a small town this remote seems built upon stasis, peacefulness, and the absolute lack of activity.

And before I sit in the mine, I ask to use the Geiger counter, which is a strangely old-fashioned looking black box with a piece you blow into, sort of like a microphone, and a needled meter that registers your result. The meter’s label reminds me of my volt meter at home and I see ‘mr/hr’ written on it. 

“What’s an ‘mr’?” I ask.

“It’s a millirad.”

I try to guess in my head what an ‘hr’ is. I’m assuming the Geiger counter is a close cousin to my voltmeter and can multitask. Amps, watts, volts. I’m trying to recall a numerical term that’s a divisor or multiplier of ten. My math skills are terrible. Hundredth-rad? Heca-rad? Finally, I give up: “What’s an ‘hr’?”

“I don’t know, actually.”

Later, a quick search online tells me it’s a simple thing, and I almost laugh. ‘Hr’ is hour. A time measurement. The Geiger counter measures millirads per hour, a scale not based upon one moment, but over a time period.

The general manager of the mine doesn’t know that, though, and she settles by patiently explaining to me that what the Geiger counter is doing is simply measuring the difference between before and after. She shows me that if the needle goes off the dial, she can adjust the knob, and it will measure it at a larger scale, back on the dial. It’s a pretty simplified explanation that doesn’t do a whole lot in my eyes for the mine’s credibility. But again, I remind myself, it’s all about the pain.

I pay my five dollars for an hour in the Merry Widow Health Mine.  

The entrance to the mine is right outside the main office, through a door built over a low shaft excavated right into the rock of the mountain. I follow an elderly couple in. 

“Go ahead,” the man says, urging me in first. “I’m slow.” 

I hold the door and insist he leads. I’m in no rush. I don’t mind having a guide, either. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but I’m no spelunker.

The man’s carrying a portable oxygen tank that he’s hooked to via its long, clear breathing tubes, but he’s not that slow. I follow the couple down the long shaft, the rock walls and ceiling broken through long ago by dynamite and drills and now jagged, wet in places, covered with algae in others. It’s like descending into a ride at a Disney park.  

“It’s 500 feet deep,” he says to me, over his shoulder.

It’s all supported by periodic large beams, arch-like structures vaguely like Japanese torii, all held in place by roof bolts and bolt plates rusty with age, the dim tunnel smelling cool and wet, but the air crisp, not musty. I’ve got a jacket on and am glad for it. There’s a conduit along the floor carrying cables to power the lights, and I see back-up lights, too, which must be connected to a generator. Further in, there are electric heaters, though the temperature in the mine feels a uniform 60 degrees or so, Fahrenheit. 

I’m excited to get my hour of low-level ionizing radiation therapy, and I feel myself get a little dizzy as I’m moving in the shaft, something I attribute to the adrenaline rush from entering a strange setting, rather than any new gas I’m breathing. It’s creepy, a little like something out of the landscape of hobbits and dragons, and it’s the deepest I’ve ever been in any mine shaft, except that instead of mythical Middle Earth creatures, I’m accompanied by a posse of ailing senior citizens. It’s strange, and I can’t help but feel that I’m being tricked into something, some grand jest is being played on me, and the local senior center is in on it. If the mine-sitting really works, how come more people don’t know about it? Why isn’t it big news, a household cure, like vitamin C or a bowl of chicken noodle soup? Take two aspirin and sit in the mine until morning. 

A few minutes later, when we reach the end of the tunnel, I’m greeted by long benches against the walls—some that look like old van seats—and the bevy of seniors, some soaking hands and feet in basins and troughs of mine water. The whole scene is lit by the soft yellow light of a few spread-out bulbs.  

The older man I’ve been following leans back toward me: “You hear a lot of things in here. You gotta filter.” 

I nod hellos to the crowd and move deep into the sitting area, taking an empty spot on a wooden bench. There are about twelve other people—all older than me—sitting and casually chatting. It’s as if we’re all waiting to board a plane, but what we’re doing is just sitting and breathing the air, breathing in the radon gas. The radon daughters. Whatever other gases or compounds float around in the atmosphere this deep in the mountain. The smell is clean, rocky, wet, not at all chemical or offensive. Simply a cool underground environment. I pretend to read Chekhov, the slim book I’ve brought with me. I’m flipping through My Life, but I’m not really reading it; I’m watching and listening, while I’m breathing deeply, wondering if I’ll later feel anything from one hour in the mine. 

An hour is supposedly only a start. The Merry Widow Mine recommends multiple sessions over the course of two weeks. Something like two hours a day, for fourteen days. My one hour is a small drop in the mine-water trough. Across from me are built-in shelves holding old romance novels, a 1975 National Geographic, and a Merry Widow Health Mine guest book. It’s like a little lounge, a resting area at any community lodge or home, a place to get comfortable, read a book, chat a little, share the gossip of the RV park, all while inhaling the magic that relieves the pain of whichever ailment one’s suffering.

It’s impossible not to consider my father. Were he still alive, would he consider coming to the mine? He tried, over the course of my childhood, various ways of stemming his bodily deterioration via the primary progressive MS, ways known to Western medical science, condoned by our family neurologist, a well-known and respected doctor on the East Coast. If Dr. Nerves pooh-poohed an idea, my father wouldn’t try it. He tried electrical stimulation for a few months, when I was very young, when he was still fairly mobile. Two large black suction cups affixed to his waist, electrodes, wired to a box with a knob controlling delivered shocks. On occasion, while shifting his body, he’d hit the knob by accident, firing the level of the current up to ten. He’d shout with pain and anger, grabbing for the controls. Years later, as his body relinquished its motion, he tried chemotherapy, a technique believed also to offer relief and control. He lost his hair. He got sick. His hair grew back. Life continued. 

Would he have come out to the mines? Would he have let himself be wheeled into this shaft or perhaps brought in on a stretcher, given his last years spent in bed, to breath radon gas, to sit with other seniors who believed? I doubt he would have, and part of this stems from the fact that at some point, acceptance was a big part of his disease. There’s only so much fight in a body. To live a life within the limits of MS, one has to struggle enough just to get through a day, forget expending energy on a wishing for a cure. The sadness of giving up on attempted cures can also lead to an acceptance that’s freeing, that allows for real joy in what’s left, however limited that can be. 

Here, in the treatment area, much of the walls and supports is covered with handwriting, names, dates: I was here! The graffiti of the saved. God bless this place! Handwriting much earlier than 1989 seems to be fading, wet, disappearing with time in this damp, chilly environment. There are Asian characters, too. One group has left a series of dates from multiple visits. ’96. ’98. ’99. 2000. The sequence ends at 2005. I recognize that many of the visitors who’ve written on these walls may now be unable to return, incapacitated beyond travel or even dead, passed away, judging from the current demographic in the mine. Pain relief and immortality are two different things. 

Across from me, a woman wears noise reduction headphones, sitting calmly in her winter coat and with her eyes closed, either listening to music or meditating, tuning out the chatter around us. Others are talking away. The conversation revolves solely around health issues and their resolution, with a tone that’s a mix of inquiry, indecision, speculation, and homeopathic and gypsy medicine, but with the firm backbone of belief in all things Health Mine. It’s a fraternity of cheerful, suffering folks bonding over the same goal—relieving pain and finding answers—all via a mix of declarations and questions, the sort of tone that only comes from that common combination of human emotions: hope and fear. This really could be the living room of a nursing home instead of the end of a hundred year-old mine shaft.

“What are you here for?” asks one man. 

“Liver disease,” says the older man across the way. 

The first man nods. “Know what you do? You get raw calves’ liver. Dice it up finely. Drink it all down in a glass of tomato juice.” 

“Calves’ liver? How much?”

“Calves’ liver. Like a piece the size of half your hand. Dice it up. Really fine. Drink it all down in a glass of tom juice. Do it twice a day.”

“Never heard that.”

“For as long as you need until you feel better. It’ll cure liver disease and mononucleosis.”

Another man talks about aspirin and bleeding and the faults of doctors who recommend too many medications and charge too much for them. In this crowd, dependent upon medicine and medical professionals, doctors are the enemy.

“I was taking so many medications it made me dizzy.”

“You should taper off all of those. Over a few months.”

“That’s what I told my doctor.” 

With us are wheelchairs, rolling walkers, canes, portable oxygen tanks, and coccyx cushions. One man has suffered an embolism. Another woman has arthritis and is soaking a hand. Another drinks a gallon of the mine water every day, hoping to pass as much of the radon-filled spring water as possible. Another drinks the water hoping to clear up a bladder issue that’s recently been discovered. At the deepest part of the mine shaft, cold mine water has been diverted into a trough where people can, one at a time, sit and soak their feet. A sign over this part of the shaft reads, “The Agony of Defeets.” The water is cold, but soaking is said to bring relief, too. 

I’d like not to make my wife a merry widow anytime soon. The point—the irony of the mine—is the odd combination of cheer and death. A “health” mine in this mining territory, an area scattered with noxious heavy metals that seem to threaten life and demand millions of dollars for reclamation and Superfund cleanup. This mine isn’t the only one; I’ve seen billboards and other painted signs for at least four other health mines in this area. 

Once I near the end of my hour, I turn off my camera’s flash and try to surreptitiously take a few photos of the mine and us in it. I look at all the dates from recent visitors and try to imagine the sufferers planning their trip to Basin, Montana, their two week vacation to sit deep in the mine and breathe this air. Does it work? Is it a placebo? Human nature: our demand for answers. Must we always need to know? The people here, around me, have found pain relief. That’s their answer, and that’s fine with me. 

My hour up, I nod goodbye to the people I’ve met, and I walk slowly out of the mine, looking at the algae, the damp rock face of the complacent shaft. Outside, the warmer air is welcome, and I realize I feel a little relieved, emerging back to the comforting expanse of the above-ground world. 

“How’d it go?” the GM asks me, back in the office. 

“Fine. Quite an experience,” I say. There’s a map on the wall with pins showing all the places from which people have traveled. Another couple has come into the office to ask questions. I wiggle my fingers, move my arms, trying to feel my joints, my limbs for any difference.  

And the Geiger counter is happily frenzied, clicking as I breathe into it. I think of karaoke microphones, stages, and American Idol. This is Radiation Idol, and I’m registering over 2 millirads per hour, a giant step from where I was before. It appears I did get my fair dosage of radon gas, of radon daughters, from this mysterious, popular mine in the Montana hills. 

“See? That’s what you want,” the GM tells me. “That’s what you want.”