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Why are people hanging out in Montana's radon-filled mines?

A screen capture of the Merry Widow Health Mine homepage showing a mine tunnel with benches along the wall, overlaid with "Find Relief For Your Chronic Pain."
https://merrywidowhealthmine.com/
A screen capture of the Merry Widow Health Mine homepage. Doctors and health officials warn that radon is dangerous in any amount, but some people believe the mines have healing properties.

Austin Amestoy Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, large or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans. For Montana, this is the Big Why. This week's question comes to us from a listener.

Austin Amestoy: Today, we’re talking about what are known as "health mines" with MTPR reporter Aaron Bolton.

Aaron Bolton: Hey Austin.

Austin Amestoy: Can you run us through our question for this week?

Aaron Bolton: Our question comes from Missoula resident Eileen Watson who is curious about a handful of defunct mines in the Boulder and Basin area north of Butte. The mines have high concentrations of the radioactive gas radon. Watson says her grandmother used to go to these mines with her friends in the '50s and '60s to relieve their arthritis pain.

Our question comes from a Missoula resident who is curious about a handful of defunct mines in the Boulder and Basin area north of Butte. The mines have high concentrations of the radioactive gas radon, which visitors to the mine believe can help cure their ailments.

“I think the Merry Widow is the one they went to. It would be she and three other ladies, usually. My grandmother had a driver. He would take them there and set up the card table and chairs for them. They would just spend the day, I guess, playing bridge.”

Aaron Bolton: Watson wants to know if there is anything to these mines her grandmother and thousands of others have sought out for what’s commonly called "radon therapy."

The people using these mines say the radon they’re exposed to in the mines causes a little stress on the body, spurring the body’s immune system to respond, reducing things like inflammation, chronic pain and other ailments.

But Watson, like many of us, has been told by the federal government and myriad health officials that radon is dangerous. January is even designated as National Radon Action Month to encourage people to test their homes for the gas.

The people using these mines say the radon they’re exposed to in the mines causes a little stress on the body, spurring the body’s immune system to respond, reducing things like inflammation, chronic pain and other ailments.

Austin Amestoy: As you dove into this, Aaron, you found that one of our fellow Montana reporters actually went into the mines a little over a year ago. So we have a guest reporter with us this go around.

Katheryn Houghton: I am Katheryn Houghton, I'm the Montana-based journalist with Kaiser Health News. So, we're a national newsroom focused on in-depth health issues.

Aaron Bolton: To set up our conversation with Katheryn for our listeners, she explained to us there are actually four of these mines, about 11 miles from one another in the Boulder area. They’re not active mines anymore, but they used to mine stuff like uranium. And people started seeking out the perceived health benefits decades ago.

Katheryn Houghton: About 70 years ago, there was this gal who visited one of the active mines and she was just there to see the mine. But after being in the mine for a few visits, she started talking about the fact that her joint inflammation had just completely disappeared. Word got out and thousands followed suit. So, fast forward to today. People will travel from all over the country to visit these four mines in Montana.

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.

Aaron Bolton: Can you take us into the mines like one of the mines you visited? Like, what is it? What does it even look like or feel like down there?

Katheryn Houghton: So, the first one I went into was Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine. It's this purple building sitting by itself in the hillside. And you walk into this building and you're actually standing in what acts as a lobby, I guess. You've got postcards for sale. You've got photo scrapbooks of the mines over the years. And in the middle of the room, kind of on the far back wall, there's this pink metal door. And that's an elevator that takes you 85 feet below the surface to kind of the rocky tunnels of the mine. And along the walls, it's interesting, too, because there were some of the walls that are boarded up with wood. And there are people who over the decades have signed their name to it, and they just keep adding the dates.

Austin Amestoy: So what exactly is radon? And, you know, why is it found in these mines at this point?

Katheryn Houghton: Right. So radon exists pretty much everywhere. Right? So it's a naturally occurring gas which forms when radioactive elements and bedrock decay. This is basically the stuff that the government tells you to test for and then pretty much pay a chunk of cash to get out of your basement.

The EPA refers to it as a hazardous gas. So both the Environmental Protection Agency and the W.H.O. attribute radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer. So they say, you know, there's no amount that they know is safe, so avoid it as much as possible.

Katheryn Houghton: The EPA refers to it as a hazardous gas. So both the Environmental Protection Agency and the W.H.O. attribute radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer. So they say, you know, there's no amount that they know is safe, so avoid it as much as possible.

Aaron Bolton: Are we talking about crazy high levels of radon down in these mines? Like, is this something the EPA would consider dangerous?

Katheryn Houghton: The levels vary from mine to mine, but these mines reached a level that is well beyond the EPA's threshold for mitigation.

But yeah, one thing I would say is I did talk with a few folks before deciding to go into the mine, and just kind of, okay, should I do this, should I not do this? And actually, I don't want this to sound like medical advice. But one of the big things that I got with a doctor was that risk really varies with exposure. So there are a lot of questions as far as what what are the risks for people who are sitting in these mines. Are people going to the mines once in their life for a few minutes, for a few hours, or are they going daily? What does their long term exposure look like? There are a lot of variables, but again, just a key message of risk that we get from organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency or the W.H.O. is that the more time you spend breathing in radon, the higher your risk of developing lung cancer is.

Montana is home to more than 260 developed and natural geothermal sites. Huge resorts that once entertained the state’s wealthiest residents and off-the-beaten-path hot spots favored by locals. So we were curious: Where did Montana’s hot springs come from, and where are they going?

Austin Amestoy: You know, it sounds like we've got on one side, you know, there's like the public and government and scientific narrative around radon, which is that it's a dangerous gas that causes cancer. And yet these mines have attracted a following of people who believe that this gas, you know, it's actually healing them. Right? So is, there, you know, evidence to back up or support that these people are, you know, recovering from these conditions?

Katheryn Houghton: Low-dose radiation therapy is not a new concept. Right? So in the early 1900s, before antibiotics were widespread, doctors actually used small doses of radiation to treat pneumonia. And there were reports that it relieved respiratory symptoms. But since then, a lot of fear around radon and radiation exposure has largely kept any therapeutic potential of low dose radiation as kind of this taboo topic. And so there have been smaller clinical trials, but a lot of them don't have the numbers and the data there. To stand alone, there needs to be more research. But when we're talking clinical radiation — and think kind of your doctor using radiation to treat cancer — that's an extremely targeted dose of radiation to a very specific portion of your body. So, doctors are quick to point out those differences between kind of radiation as treatment and sitting in a defunct mine that has a lot of radon gas.

Aaron Bolton: What do the owners have to say about drawing people to the mines?

This was just something that was widely accepted as the norm where they were. This is something that their kids will go down and play in the mines with their friends. This is something that they use for their own ailments. This is something that they truly live by.

Katheryn Houghton: The folks who are operating the Free Enterprise Mine, they grew up going into these mines as kids. There were even some class field trips to these mines from Boulder, Montana. So this was just something that was widely accepted as the norm where they were. This is something that their kids will go down and play in the mines with their friends. This is something that they use for their own ailments. This is something that they truly live by.

Austin Amestoy: That was Katheryn Houghton with Kaiser Health News

And something that struck me from a part of our chat that we didn’t have time to air is that the people she spoke to who use these mines aren’t skeptical of western medicine, necessarily. It sounds like they’re folks who are just desperate to find health solutions when they feel like treatments from their doctors aren’t doing enough.

Aaron, you talked to someone else who has used these mines, right?

Aaron Bolton: Yea, his name is Steve McCall and he lives next to the Free Enterprise Mine in Boulder. He’s a semi-retired EMT and has been going down into these mines since the late '70s after one of the owners gave him free visits for working on their car.

Steve McCall: I thought, ‘Oh, right, I don’t know if that stuff is real or not.’

Aaron Bolton: While McCall was skeptical at first, he says his torn rotator cuff felt better after visits to the mine. Now he’s a die-hard believer and still goes to the mines. His wife also uses the mines and they’ve even made friends with people coming from all over the country to use them as they seek relief from whatever ailments they have.

Steve McCall: “A lot of people come down year after year after year.”

Austin Amestoy: So there are people like McCall, who swear by these mines. But I want to come back to our listener, Eileen. Is she convinced?

Aaron Bolton: So, I had Eileen read Katheryn’s piece on the mines and the controversy over using radon. She seemed to be leaning toward using the mines herself to relieve some arthritis pain like her grandmother did, but she says she wants to look into it more before deciding to use one.

Austin Amestoy: Thanks for your reporting Aaron, and a big thanks to Katheryn Houghton for sharing her reporting for this episode.

Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. This show is all about answering your questions, so send them to us below or at www.mtpr.org/bigwhy. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving us a review.

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Corrected: January 19, 2023 at 10:44 AM MST
An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect description of how radon gas is measured.
Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.
Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.