Does low-level radiation have health benefits?

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 7:00 p.m. MDT

April Alvarez of Springville says the radon treatment in the Montana mine reduces pain.

Jen Pilgreen

BOULDER, Mont. — At a time when much of the world is worrying about radiation from Japan, a small community of naysayers is thinking just the opposite.

They deliberately immerse themselves in radioactive gas day after day in old uranium mines in the belief that it's good for their health.

"I do believe it — 100 percent, I do," said Salvador Alvarez of Springville.

Alvarez and three members of his Utah family are spending 10 days at a defunct uranium mine northeast of Butte, Mont.

Four mines in that area are operated commercially for a purpose most people consider quite bizarre. And most scientists are skeptical about the dubious benefits of basking in low-level radiation.

To enter the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine, the Alvarez family takes a 90-second elevator ride. It delivers them to a horizontal mine tunnel 85 feet below the surface.

A granite rock surface is visible throughout the mine, and the ceiling is reinforced with mine timbers. A Geiger counter clicks excitedly when held close to the walls.

Although the mine's owners have added easy chairs, couches and reading lights, it's not the sort of place most people would choose for a 10-day vacation.

"Bring a good book, nice warm clothes and you're set," Alvarez said as he stepped off the elevator for his fourth visit.

The Alvarez family comes year after year. They sit around a few hours each day, knitting, reading books, playing board games and cards, all the while breathing air that has significant levels of radon gas.

"Most people think there's a concern here. We don't," Patricia Lewis said.

Lewis and her husband own the mine and an adjacent motel where most guests spend their nights.

Lewis' grandfather discovered uranium in the area but eventually stopped mining when visitors began claiming improvements to their health. He converted the uranium mine into an underground spa in 1952.

Lewis said she currently has a mailing list of about 1,500 regular customers, mostly in the United States and Canada.

At one time, a dozen mines in the area were operated as radon health mines. The number has shrunk to four in recent years as owners have found profits to be elusive. Lewis charges her customers $7 an hour or $250 for a 10-day treatment program.

While in the mine, customers can use their laptops and enjoy high-speed internet access.

Pam Alvarez first tried the spa treatment several years ago. At that time, she says she had constant, severe pain that doctors and drugs couldn't fix.

"I was diagnosed at one point with ankylosing spondylitis, which of course I still have," she said.

She also says she suffered from fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, asthma and other ailments.

Her husband was skeptical until she traveled to Montana, spent many hours in the radon mine and then returned home.

"When she came  back," Salvador Alvarez said, "I was like, 'Hallelujah, God!' I believe in miracles."

When Pam Alvarez's pain went away, other family members started to visit the mine. Often they decide not to go underground and choose instead to sit for many hours in the above-ground Radon Room.

The sparsely decorated room has vents which emit a noticeable whooshing sound as gas is pumped in from the mine.

Pam Alvarez's mother prefers to sit in the Radon Room and knit, rather than descend the elevator into the mine.

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