Radon Health Mines

views updated

Radon Health Mines

With Daughter Watching, Woman Lying by Bags of Uranium Ore, Used to Increase Radon Gas in the Mines


By: Carl Iwasaki

Date: June 1, 1952

Source: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken in the Free Enterprise Mine, a "radon health mine" in Boulder, Montana, in 1952.


This image shows an elderly woman suffering from an unspecific chronic health disorder who sought relief in a "radon health mine" in Boulder, Montana in 1952. There are four radon health mines in Montana. The first, the Free Enterprise Mine, opened to the public in 1952, the year this picture was taken. All were still open for business as of early 2006. Many of the customers are Amish or Mennonite, religious groups who tend to shun technical medical treatments in favor of "natural" remedies. Three of the four health mines in Montana, including that shown here, were originally working uranium mines.

In the radon health mines, treatment consists of staying in the mine for some various lengths of time to be exposed to the radium that is given off by uranium in the rocks. (The bagged uranium seen in the picture does not necessarily raise the radon concentration in the space significantly.) Radon concentrations in air are usually measured in units of picocuries per liter of air (pC/L), where a curie is a unit of radioactivity and a picocurie is a billionth of a curie. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) suggests an upper limit of 4 pC/L in homes and considers higher concentrations dangerous; radon concentrations in the Montana health mines range from 233 to 1,296 pC/L. Levels as high as 1,600 pC/L have been measured.

Radon therapy is also available at in a number of mines, tunnels, steam baths, and spas in Europe.



See primary source image.


The radon health mines recall the earliest phase of the modern relationship to radiation—enthusiasm. In the 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, x rays and radium were fresh discoveries. Both were widely hailed as health-giving. Numerous products containing radium—now known to be highly carcinogenic—were sold over the counter. Sir William Ramsay, winner of the Nobel Prize for physics, said in 1904 that with radium "the philosopher's stone had been discovered, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it may lead to that other goal of the philosophers of the Dark Age—the elixir vitae," a potion conferring eternal life. After public horror at the painful deaths suffered by girls working in clock factories who licked radium paint off paintbrushes used to mark glow-in-the-dark clock dials, public fear of radiation began to grow, and eventually became commonplace. However, a belief that low-level radiation may have curative powers persists and has lately acquired some scientific allies.

Radium, itself a breakdown product of uranium, decays into radon, which is also radioactive and so eventually decays as well. Radiation is given off at each stage of decay. Radon is produced continuously by rocks containing uranium, such as those in the radium health mines of Montana or (at lower concentrations) the granite bedrocks of New England. Radon is a heavy radioactive gaseous element, atomic number 83, with twenty known isotopes.

Radon can seep from the ground into enclosed spaces such as homes, presenting a lung cancer hazard; the EPA estimates that radon is the second most common cause of lung cancer in the United States after cigarette smoking. Radon has long been known as a health hazard to uranium miners, but it was not until 1984 that scientists were aware of the homeenvironment radon pollution problem. An engineer named Stanley Watras was working at the Limerick, Pennsylvania nuclear power station that year, which he was helping to bring online, when flashing and wailing alarms went off. He was found to be heavily contaminated with radiation. The radiation was eventually traced not to the nuclear power plant where he worked, but to his home, where radon was measured at 2,500 pC/L.

Radon is present in millions of U.S. homes. It is particularly prevalent in New England, as the area's geology features different forms of granite that emit radon. According to the EPA, homes in New England are four times likelier to have elevated radon levels than homes elsewhere. A variety of commercial home radon test kits are available, and their use is recommended by the EPA. Radon, if present, can usually abated by improved ventilation of a home's basement.

There is actually a real scientific debate over whether extremely low amounts of radiation can promote health, an effect termed "hormesis." Hormetic effects are not unusual in nature; there are many substances that may be beneficial (or at least are relatively harmless) at small doses, but toxic at high doses (e.g., alcohol). There is mixed evidence for the existence of a radiation hormesis effect. In 2005, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, after exhaustive review of the scientific literature, announced in its seventh report on the biological effects of ionizing radiation, BEIR VII, that the most appropriate model for the health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation is "LNT"—linear, no threshold. According to this model, halving the amount of radiation to which a creature is exposed halves the amount of harm done, right down to zero. The hormesis model, according to which there is some level below which radiation does not less harm but positive good, was thus rejected by the Academy. BEIR VII also rejected the threshold model, which proposes that there is some level of radiation exposure (a threshold) below which there is no harm.



Calabresi, Edward J., and Baldwin, Linda A. "Toxicology Rethinks Its Central Belief." Nature 421 (February 13, 2003).

Web sites

Environmental Protection Agency. "A Physician's Guide—Radon: The Health Threat with a Simple Solution." September 1993. ?http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/physic.html? (accessed February 25, 2006).

Environmental Protection Agency. "Radionuclides (including Radon, Radium and Uranium): Hazard Summary." April 1992; Revised January 2000. ?http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/radionuc.html? (accessed February 25, 2006).

National Academy of Sciences. "Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR [Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation] VII." 2005. Available online at ?http://fermat.nap.edu/catalog/11340.html? (accessed February 25, 2006).

RoadsideAmerica.com. "Radon Health Mines." 1996. ?http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/MTBASradon.html? (accessed February 25, 2006).