Another concern: The radon treatment in the mines is largely unregulated. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services doesn’t have the authority to permit or license the mines, though department spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the adverse health risk from exposure is well known. The EPA also doesn’t have the power to mandate limits on radon. Marples said much of the argument for radon’s therapeutic use relies on historical reports, unlike evidence-based research on clinical radiation. Still, some radiation experts are split on what level of radon should be deemed dangerous and whether it could have positive health effects. Nonetheless, each year travelers head to western Montana, where four inactive mines flush with radon are within 11 miles of one another near the rural communities of Basin and Boulder. Day passes range from $7 to $15. The gas naturally forms when radioactive elements in the mountains’ bedrock decay.
But 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. 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 issues. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, among others, blame the gas as the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Although cancer doctors use radiation as a front-line treatment to destroy dangerous cells, its role in the U.S. 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 covid-19 patients.
“In clinical therapy, we know exactly what the dose is, we know exactly where it’s going,” he said. “I found it like I think a lot of people do,” said Tichenor, 67. “It’s a point of desperation with conventional treatment.”
He learned about the mines 14 years ago when he and his wife, Veronica Kim, lived in Seattle and a connective tissue disease crumpled Veronica’s hands and feet. Traditional medicine wasn’t working. After two sessions a year in the mines ever since, Veronica smiles when she shows her hands. “They’re not deformed anymore,” she said, adding she’s been able to cut down on her use of meloxicam, a medication to reduce pain and swelling. “The people coming to the mines, they’re not stupid,” Kim said. “People’s lives are made better by them.”
To owner Chang Kim, 69, his business is a mission, especially for those with chronic medical conditions such as arthritis or diabetes. 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. 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 clawfoot tub filled with radon-tainted water. People soak their feet and hands in water or simply sit and work on a puzzle. On a bench sits a printout of a Forbes article on clinical trials that show low-dose radiation could be a treatment for covid-19.
The News Highlights
- Covid renews interest in radiation, but documents warn against pilgrimages to radon-filled mines
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