Low Dose Radon as Alternative Therapy for Chronic Illness
University of Nevada
Reno, Nevada (United States)
"Radiation" is for many people a word that evokes fear and dread. In the United States, great concern exists regarding the safety of nuclear power plants, nuclear weapons testing, nuclear waste sites, and the health of workers in the nuclear industry; thus numerous studies have been undertaken by government and health organizations to assess related risks. In recent years, radon gas has been given much attention as a potential carcinogen in the United States, due to its ubiquity in soil and bedrock, and the consequent exposure of people in their homes and workplaces. Estimates of radon risk are typically extrapolated from the linear no-threshold (LNT) model based on studies of lung cancer occurence in miners.
This paper addresses the possibility that the LNT model may not be applicable for low doses of radon, and that low doses of radon may in fact be beneficial for certain chronic illnesses. There are growing numbers of studies indicating an inverse relationship between cancer occurence and low dose environmental radon exposure, as well as numerous studies examining the therapeutic effects of low dose radiation. This protective or beneficial effect, called hormesis, has gained recognition by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). A large body of anecdotal evidence in support of hormesis exists, in the form of thousands of people who annually use radon spas worldwide. The evidence I present here represents the experiences of ill people in the United States and Canada who expose themselves to radon at the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine, located in the state of Montana, and in operation for nearly fifty years. I argue that if a chance exists that chronically ill people may be helped through treatment with low dose radon, then scientific examination of the radon health mines in Montana should be carried out. The fact that much of the supporting evidence is anecdotal should not be a cause for dismissal; on the contrary, that so much anecdotal evidence exists should provide greater incentive for research.
Keywords: Radon, alternative therapy, hormesis, chronic illness Introduction
Each summer, hundreds of people from all over the United States and Canada journey to six "Radon Health Mines" located in the mountains of Montana (USA). These travelers share in common the belief that inhaling radon gas in the underground mine tunnels will alleviate the painful symptoms of their various illnesses. They also believe that radon will accomplish this more effectively, and with fewer side effects, than the medications and painkillers prescribed by their physicians.
Since 1997, I have been engaged in an anthropological study of these Montana radon mines. As an anthropologist, my approach to the study of radon therapy is that of a social scientist rather than a medical research scientist. I am interested in the motivations of ill people and the decisions they make in regard to what sorts of health care they wish to use. Although most Americans use the conventional biomedical health care system, it is also quite common for Americans to use various "alternative" treatments that are not accepted by the mainstream medical profession [6,7]. Radon is certainly one such treatment.
Radon therapy is not only different from standard biomedical therapy; its claims are actually the direct opposite of nearly all conventional scientific wisdom about human exposure to radiation. Indeed, for most people "radiation" is a somewhat fear-laden word. The public is aware that even conventional biomedical uses of radiation contain an element of danger: for example, radiation therapy for cancer routinely destroys some healthy tissue along with cancer cells. It is also well known that radiologists and technicians take protective measures to prevent excessive exposure to radiation. In addition, recent debates over the storage of nuclear wastes along with investigative reporting about past nuclear testing in the United States have ensured that for the most part, the public's perception of any sort of exposure to radiation is at least vaguely negative [11,23]. Yet in spite of these public perceptions, chronically ill individuals continue to go to Montana to sit in the radon mines.
It is this dichotomy of beliefs about radon that holds my interest as an anthropologist. While activist groups, government entities, and health departments nationwide debate the threat of radon to public health, and seek the best solutions to what is viewed as a serious problem , the mines in Montana offer relief from chronic symptoms with that very same radon. While many American citizens are investing in radon-testing devices and retrofitting for their homes in order to protect the health of their families, other individuals travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to Montana for the express purpose of exposing themselves to radon gas, because they believe it will improve their health. Another dichotomy of beliefs is also growing among members of the scientific community: is radon gas truly a threat to health, or is it in fact beneficial? 
In this paper I discuss the phenomenon of "radon for health" in the United States, using the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine as a case study. I briefly contrast the biomedical view of radon with the hormetic view. To illustrate how radon therapy is used as an alternative therapy for chronic illnesses, I include ethnographic material which is largely anecdotal in nature, obtained from interviews with mine clients. I argue that the ethnographic data from radon mine visitors, together with this body of research on hormesis, provide a powerful incentive for the mainstream American medical profession to investigate the therapeutic possibilities of radon.
The controversial substance on which the Montana mines base their treatment is Radon-222, an inert gas that is a naturally-occuring product of the radioactive decay of uranium. Radon gas is considered a health hazard by environmental agencies in the United States, because it seeps from bedrock into poorly-ventilated foundations and basements, and accumulates there . Another source of concern is that the subsequent decay of radon gas produces "radon daughters," alpha particles which can adhere to dust and smoke and thus can be inhaled. The inhalation of these radon daughters by miners has been correlated with an increased incidence of lung cancer, although the correlation is strongest among smokers .
In contrast, the argument that low level radon gas may be beneficial is based upon the scientific principle of hormesis, which states that small doses of a substance (such as radon) may have a beneficial or stimulatory effect, an effect which holds true even if high doses of the same substance are harmful or lethal [16,18,19]. According to this view, a linear extrapolation of risk from high doses to low doses, such as that in the LNT model, cannot be taken for granted. In other words, there may truly be a "threshold" below which an agent not only is not harmful, but is actually beneficial. An apt analogy is a substance such as caffiene, which is known to be mildly stimulating at low doses, but potentially harmful at high doses . According to Myron Pollycove and other researchers, low doses of radiation are beneficial in that they stimulate DNA repair, antioxidant action, and immune response . Other researchers such as Sohei Kondo of Kinki University in Osaka, Japan , and B.L. Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh , have also shown that cancer rates actually decrease in populations exposed to low levels of radiation beyond normal background radiation.
Radon "spas" are an accepted part of health care in some parts of the world. Gasteiner Heilstollen in Austria, Fuerstenzeche "Duke's Mine" in Germany, the Radium Palace in the Czech Republic, and the radon spa at Misasa, Japan are only a few of the many facilities worldwide where ill people can breath radon or soak in radioactive water for arthritis and other ailments. In the United States, most physicians believe that only conventional science-based care should be made available, and they do not consider radon inhalation to be based on science. Radon therapy is not biomedically approved, and it is consequently labeled as an "alternative" or "unorthodox" treatment--or worse.
Radon therapy at the health mines in Montana is thus very much a self-treatment, and no medical doctors are on staff. The owners of the mines do not participate in any form of diagnosis; they merely provide the facilities for self-treatment. They believe firmly that there is a scientific basis for the treatment they sell: that is, the hormetic effect. They make it clear to their clients that they, the owners, do not consider what they offer to be "alternative" medicine, but rather "unappreciated" medicine. The personal physicians of most of the mine visitors either do not know about their patients' radon therapy, or do not approve of it. One woman described how her husband had suffered from painful osteoarthritis for years and needed knee replacement surgery. His knees were so much improved after a secret visit to the radon mines that he had mystified his doctor:
And we were amazed...when he went to have surgery, the doctor couldn't figure out why [my husband] didn't have any pain. But we didn't tell [the doctor]... we didn't want to make him mad before he started cutting! [she laughs]. So we didn't tell him what we did. But [the doctor] always said that, several times, "You don't have any pain?" He couldn't figure that out. I guess now if we went back we would tell him what we did.
One mine visitor had recommended the mines to his uncle, after having a positive experience with his own arthritis. The uncle also suffered from arthritis, was in a wheelchair, and was taking a lot of medication before trying radon treatment:
When he came home from Montana, he didn't tell his doctor what he did... he just thought, leave well enough alone. So he went to the doctor, and the doctor said, "Well this treatment I've had you on is finally working, you've got half the arthritis you had before." And my uncle still didn't tell him that it was the radon that had helped him, but everytime he saw me he thanked me for telling him about it.
Compared to conventional medical treatment, it is relatively inexpensive to use the mines. The major cost is often the trip itself, in that many people come from hundreds or even a thousand or more miles away. The trip can also be costly in the physical sense: some clients describe having to lay down in the back of a truck for a 1500 mile trip because they are too ill to sit up; or how painful sitting in a bus for two days was for their arthritic joints. However, clients not only hope to save money on medical bills by using radon; they also hope to reduce the amount of medication they take, and thus they seem to be willing to make the trip to Montana, however long and arduous it may be. Dozens of former and continuing clients have provided enthusiuastic testimonials about their improved state of health. For example, one woman told me the following story of her experience:
I had bursitis in my shoulder at the time...so I went [into the mine] and it was the craziest thing, about the third day, my whole arm hurt. And it was just like as if every day the pain got lower and lower and lower, and it was just like it went out my fingertips. It was really weird. And it didn't bother me anymore, I could comb my hair, I could use my a arm before that I had a hard time combing my hair, I had to bend over to comb my hair.
This personal friend of ours was in a wheelchair. We couldn't believe that he couldn't hold a fork at one time [because of his arthritis], but then after coming to the mines, he played 18 holes of golf, and he played tennis.
The Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine
The "radon for health" phenomenon in the United States began in 1951, when a miner named Wade Lewis discovered uranium in an old gold mine on his property near Boulder, Montana. The wife of one of the mining engineers went down into the mine to visit her husband, so the legend goes, and discovered that her bursitis was dramatically improved. From this first healing experience word spread quickly, and by 1952 thousands of people suffering from arthritis and other illnesses were arriving at the Free Enterprise Mine asking for treatment. Mr. Lewis decided to stop mining uranium and sell radon treatments instead [1,14,15].
Today the Free Enterprise is a well-run and modern facility; however the mine tunnel itself still has a rustic quality. The tunnel is reached by an elevator which transports clients eighty-five feet underground, where the air is chilly and damp. The sides of the tunnels are lined with benches and chairs, and the clients play cards, read, chat, or take naps. Certain "regulars" come at the same time every summer and plan to see friends made at the mines from year to year. On all the wooden support beams and the rock walls people have written or carved their names and the dates, or left messages about their healing experiences. Hundreds of business cards are tacked up, and on one of the plastic chairs someone has drawn a face and written "Roy's healing chair." People sitting down here are very willing to talk about their illnesses and to share their stories about their healing successes. Many people say that they tried radon only because a friend told them to, but didn't really think it would help them. Now, they maintain that the radon has helped them tremendously, although they are aware that many Americans would think they were "crazy."
The Department of Health and Environmental Sciences of the State of Montana does not actively regulate these mines; however a representative does come out periodically to measure the levels of radon within each mine, and makes recommendations about the number of hours to which a client should be maximally exposed. The last testing was done in 1991, with results as shown below. These measurements were obtained by taking a reading every hour for a one week period, then averaging the concentration.
All of the mines recommend about thirty-two one hour visits, taking two to three visits per day, for a total of about three hours exposure per day. Between visits, it is recommended that the client come out into the fresh air, let the radon dissipate from his or her lungs, and rest a great deal. This alternation of treatment and rest period has been found, according to the mine owners, to be the most beneficial in terms of symptom alleviation.
A survey of mine visitors quickly reveals a locus of specific illnesses and complaints common to the group. By far the most common of these diseases is arthritis, but some other frequent complaints include systemic lupus erythemastosis, rheumatism, multiple sclerosis, emphysema, the effects of rheumatic fever and heart disease, ankylosing spondylitis, allergies, sinus problems, and psoriasis. Many individuals suffered from multiple illnesses. The following chart categorizes the illnesses listed by 807 visitors in a set of data collected in 1998.
While these diseases may initially seem unrelated (thereby making it appear dubious that radon could help them all), an interesting correlation is that many of these diseases are successfully treated with corticosteroids such as cortisone and prednisone. Although I point out the association, any direct connection is beyond the scope of this paper. However, Wade Lewis suggested as early as 1955 that inhaling radon gas somehow stimulated the body to produce more of its own natural steroids . In the following I provide brief biomedical sketches of three of the most common types of illnesses suffered by mine visitors, and describe the stories of symptom relief as told to me.
Arthritis. Arthritis in some form afflicts more than 37 million Americans, although what is typically referred to as "arthritis" is actually a collection of more than one hundred different afflictions . The symptoms range from the joint stiffness and achiness of osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition of joints experienced to some extent by nearly every human being over the age of fifty or sixty years; to the systemic and much more severe rheumatoid arthritis . Rheumatoid arthritis is particularly painful and debilitating, and is one of the more frequent diagnoses claimed by mine visitors. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is unrelated to age, and is characterized by extreme inflammatory reactions lasting weeks, months or years followed by periods of remission . There is no cure, although in severe cases surgical replacement of the joint may be indicated. Corticosteroid derivatives may dramatically improve the symptoms, but unfortunately these have side effects which may be hazardous over the many years needed to treat a chronic illness. Thus for most RA sufferers aspirin and similar compounds are the agents most commonly used to control the pain and inflammation . One man described a woman he'd seen when she first arrived at the radon mines:
She'd been completely bed-ridden--all her joints were just frozen up. She was always in pain, and said she just felt hopeless and depressed. Her husband had to carry her from her bed to the couch to the bathroom. But when they left she was walking! You should see her now! She's just as lively and energetic a woman as you've ever seen. Some friends of theirs had been out here, and heard about the mines, and told her to go. She finally came, and now they come every year.
Ankylosing Spondylitis. Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a particular form of arthritis which targets the spinal column, and tends to occur more in men than in women. It may begin in childhood, but generally onset occurs in the late teens or early twenties. AS is characterized by its tendency to stiffen the back, causing what in the past was called "poker-spine." Living with AS can be extremely painful, with the spine feeling particularly stiff and painful in the morning, but movement and activity is recommended in order to keep the back as supple as possible. In years past AS patients were often immobilized and confined to bed, this being thought the best way to treat the condition. Unfortunately this lack of exercise resulted in even greater stiffness and "freezing up" of the back . Ronald, a mine visitor of sixty-three, described AS as a "disease which fuses the bones of the back together and affects the nerves." When he first came to the mine in 1987 he could hardly walk, but after four series of treatments (two and three years apart) he no longer uses a cane, and says that his doctor considers him to be "a walking miracle."
Systemic Lupus Erythematosis. Lupus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease characterized by rashes, fever, joint aches, fatigue and weight loss, seizures, and many other severe symptoms, any or all of which can occur in a single patient. SLE can be conceptualized as a condition in which the immune response runs wild: essentially turned to attack its own body. Before 1949, there was no effective treatment for SLE, and 50% of SLE patients died within two to three years of diagnosis. But with the discovery of the corticosteroids, cortisone and corticotropin were found to dramatically suppress most symptoms of SLE .
Prednisone, a synthetic derivative of cortisone, was introduced in 1955, and has become the most commonly used corticosteroid. Antimalarials such as quinacrine, chloroquine, and hydroxychloroquine; and immunosuppressive drugs such as azathiprine and cyclophosphamide are also effective. However all of these drugs have side effects that often limit the amount or the length of time that they can be taken. As one of the mine visitors said, he wished he had come to the mines "before [he] was poisoned with prescription drugs." A woman from Texas, coming for the first time in 1997, complained of the "joint pains and terrible headaches and fatigue" she experienced as symptoms of SLE. Both individuals say that they have been able to stop taking their medicine as a result of their radon therapy, and as one of them put it, "I have broken the medication cycle."
It is of course possible that people merely convince themselves that they feel better. The placebo effect is, after all, a powerful force in healing. There are two common responses to this possibility: either people admit that it might be placebo effect, but are so pleased with the results that they do not care; or, they simply insist that radon therapy truly works, often citing stories of pets who have experienced a remarkable recovery from arthritis.
And of course people say it's all in your head. And I say, well if it is, good! If you can believe that you're not sick and you don't even have to take medication, so what? At least there's no side affects, it's all in your head!...
We've had dogs go down there [into the mine] with arthritis, and the dogs went running around after that--if it's the placebo effect, well then who told the dog?
Radon therapy has been considered an "alternative" treatment in the United States for almost fifty years, and it has not been accepted by the mainstream medical profession; and yet, the people who use it believe that they are helped. This anecdotal evidence is supported by a growing body of research investigating the hormetic effects of low-dose radiation, research which has also been recognized by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) . With the continued and widespread usage of radon therapy in Japan and Europe, as well as the scientific research being done in those parts of the world, it seems strange that the American medical establishment has not shown more interest in exploring the possible benefits of radon.
It is in large part due to this lack of interest that many mine visitors in the United States keep their radon therapy experiences to themselves. National studies [6,7], as well as interviews with mine visitors, suggest that patients are reluctant to tell their physicians not only about radon, but about any unconventional treatments they may have tried on their own. This reluctance is probably justified, in light of various comments made by medical doctors in regards to the radon mines. For example, in 1955 a surgeon who could no longer operate due to arthritis in his hands went to the mines after seeking help in vain from the famous Mayo Clinic. After six treatments he noted, "Last Monday I operated on my first patient in eight months. I'm in business again." When asked by the interviewer if he had reported his successful symptom relief to the American Medical Association, he replied, "I have not. They'd laugh at me" . In a more recent example, an article by the syndicated columnist Dr. Gott in 1988 made the following comments:
Some people will try hazardous--even bizarre-- cures for disease due to ignorance or desperation. According to the EPA, there are 20,000 cases of cancer caused every year from radon contamination...While Easterners are testing soil samples and bulldozing radon-rich cellars, Westerners are caught up in the lure of "health mines..." The mine owner charges $4 per visit for the privelege of microwaving your thyroid, frying your bone marrow and nuking your gonads .
This sort of reaction to the idea of purposely exposing oneself to low-dose radiation is unfortunately all too common, and it is similar to the positions taken thus far by government entities in the United States such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Thus many Americans are not only missing out on what might be a helpful medical therapy, but they are also spending millions of dollars protecting themselves, perhaps needlessly, from the "dangers" of radon. But as Jawarowski and Rockwell point out [12,20], scarce economic resources should not be wasted in an attempt to enforce unrealistic guidelines for radiation exposure, especially when studies suggest that the natural "background" radiation to which all humans are exposed in their environments actually stimulates DNA repair mechanisms. In another example, a recent Washington Post article cites figures given by the Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that a typical annual radiation dose (that is, typical background radiation plus typical medical exposure such as x-rays) affects life span by only eighteen days; while working in agriculture takes an expected 320 days off the life span, and smoking a pack of cigarettes even more . If accurate, these kinds of comparative figures do not appear to warrant spending millions of dollars on the attempt to eliminate radon from the environment.
If there is any chance that radon therapy can help people with chronic pain and illness, then it should be explored thoroughly. Chronic illnesses are long-term illnesses that usually can't be cured, but must be simply lived with. They affect sizable numbers of people, and may vary from being merely annoying and frustrating to being extremely painful and debilitating. In the case of arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, pain medications such as aspirin, and steroid drugs such as cortisone, are helpful; but over the long term these can lose their effectiveness or cause harmful side effects. If low-dose radon therapy can possibly help people to eliminate at least part of their dependency on medication, then should it not be made one of the options of treatment? In any case, surveys have shown that chronically ill people are much more prone to experimenting with "alternative" types of treatments [6,7]. Whether or not there is a scientific explanation for the effectiveness of a treatment is likely to be much less important to people than the simple fact that it works.
The claims of the mine visitors that their symptoms and illnesses are being helped by exposure to radon are, it must be admitted, anecdotal evidence only. Testimonies to healing are only what people say, and they are not documented, at least not in the United States, by any official epidemiological studies with statistical power. Thus is has been easy so far for the medical establishment to dismiss these claims. However, the stories of these mine visitors, when taken together with ongoing hormesis research worldwide, should provide powerful incentives for further study of the therapeutic properties of low dose radon. Given that chronic illnesses are not particularly well served by biomedicine, it would seem unethical not do so. And as the mine visitors say, "Wouldn't you try anything to help this pain?"
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