Boulder, Montana, is the kind of small town where young people leave home by joining the military. That much is evident from the carved wooden yellow ribbons that decorate every lamppost and store window. Samuel Freeland, Trapper Hoberg, Cody Huizinga, Andrea Trotter, Justin Carr, Jennie Carr, Aaron Lindermann, Jim Letexier, Joseph Smith — there are over 40 names in a town of 1,500.
These are the young men and women who fight the country’s wars. Nor is any of this likely to change. In every supermarket and fast-food shop recruiters have hung flyers advertising $40,000 bonuses and $70,000 in educational benefits for enlisting. Most are brand new when I arrive but by the time I leave four days later, half the phone number tabs have been torn off.
I’m in Boulder for an entirely different purpose — trying to make people less afraid of nuclear power. Boulder is the home of a mini-industry of old uranium, silver, and copper mines that have been transformed into health spas. The monikers are enticing — Earth Angel, the Sunshine Health Mine, Free Enterprise, the Merry Widow. All have attracted victims of arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, rheumatism, and other aches and pains for more than a half-century.
IT ALL BEGAN BACK in the 1950s when Wade Lewis, a Boulder geologist, discovered radioactivity in the abandoned Free Enterprise silver mine just on the edge of town. The shaft turned out to contain uranium, much more valuable than silver, and Lewis began mining it for the growing nuclear industry.
Then the wife of one engineer spent a few days down in the mine and found her bursitis had been cured. She told a friend who also had bursitis and got the same results. Soon the news spread by word-of-mouth and people were coming from all over to relieve their aches and pains.
Lewis did some research and found there was reason to believe that low doses of radiation might be a cure for a variety of illnesses. People had been exposing themselves to radiation since Roman times, although no one ever realized it. “Hot springs” and other geothermal sites have always been renown for their health effects. People always assumed it was the hot baths or the sulfur in the water that was beneficial, but in the 20th century it was recognized that rocks and waters at these sites are often highly radioactive. Europeans still frequent these spas. Bad Gastein, in Austria, has just been remodeled for $20 million and advertises its high radon count. The Radium Palace in the Czech Republic, founded by Marie Curie in 1906, treats 14,000 patients a year and has to turn people away.
Back in the 1950s, Life magazine did a spread on Montana health mines and soon 100 people a day were crowding into the 400-foot tunnel, soaking up radiation. Stories of remarkable cures abounded. Even today, I met a woman who in her 70s who said she was in a wheelchair with arthritis twenty years ago before coming to Boulder. Today she is still spry and healthy. In 50 years, the mine has never had a lawsuit.
In 1980, however, the Environmental Protection Agency began a lurid campaign against radon gas, charging that it causes 15,000 to 20,000 lung cancers a year, about one-fifth of all lung cancers — a preposterous figure. Bernard Cohen, of the University of Pittsburgh, did a comprehensive study of radon levels in 90 percent of the nation’s counties and found lung cancer rates vary inversely with radon exposure. (Radon is a relatively short-lived by-product of uranium breakdown.)
Nonetheless, traffic at the mines has slowed to a crawl. The visitors are mostly Canadians — who don’t pay any attention to the EPA — and American Amish, who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge all fads and customs. One group of women in bonnets and men in round hats had ridden the train from Erie, Pennsylvania. “We don’t travel in airplanes,” said one elderly patriarch with a full white beard and perfect teeth, “but we are allowed to take a cure from radiation.”
So for four days I sat in the damp tunnel absorbing about 400 times what the EPA calls an “action-level dose” of radon gas. There are comfortable chairs and bright lights and I caught up on my reading. One Canadian couple down the hall played cribbage all day while others read or napped. “Last week a couple brought a dog that was all crippled with arthritis,” remarked one Alberta wheat farmer. “After a few days that dog was running around like a pup. People say this cure is all in your head but you can’t tell us that dog was just pretending he felt better.”
THE IDEA THAT SMALL or even sizable doses of radiation can be healthy now has a very firm footing in the theory of “hormesis,” whose principal exponent is Professor Edward Calabrese, of the University of Massachusetts. Hormesis says that the body’s repair mechanisms work to undo radiation damage we experience every day. After all, every human being on earth is zapped by around 15,000 bullets of ionizing radiation every second. Obviously, our bodies have long learned to deal with these insults.
At extremely high doses — the kind you get from witnessing an atomic bomb explosion — radiation does cause cancer at predictable levels. For much smaller doses, however — the kind we experience from cosmic radiation or X-rays – there has never been any evidence of damaging effects. Instead, government regulators have assumed there is “no safe dose” of radiation, “just to be safe.” As a result, we end up fretting over doses of 1 millirem per year — the amount you would get standing next to a nuclear reactor for a year — while we regularly absorb anywhere from 250 to 400 millirem from natural sources.
Hormesis theory, on the contrary, argues that bodily defense mechanisms are actually stimulated by low doses of radiation — just as the immune system is stimulated by small exposures to a virus. A little radiation can actually inoculate you against cancer. This would explain why residents of Colorado, who endure the nation’s highest levels of background radiation, have the nation’s lowest rates of cancer, while residents of the Mississippi Delta, with the lowest background exposures, have the highest cancer rates in the country.
Wade’s granddaughter Patricia and her husband Burdette Anderson bought the mine from her grandfather’s company in 1994. After a decade of declining traffic, they are stoic about the future. “Our heyday has pretty much come and gone,” she says glumly. “Lone Tree Mine just down the road closed up this year. The EPA’s campaign against radon has definitely had a tremendous impact.” Nonetheless, she continues to communicate with groups like the Hormesis Society, hoping for a breakthrough. “They say the scientists will eventually prove us right, but we think we’re going to prove them right.”
After four eight-hours days in the Free Enterprise Mine, I certainly didn’t feel any ill effects. (Some people claim to feel a little nauseous if they have serious conditions at the beginning.) I have had a little touch of arthritis in both knees but we’ll have to wait to see what happens.
Most of all, I feel a lift in pioneering the effort to help Americans get over their inordinate fear of radiation and nuclear power. After all, if we had a few score more reactors pumping out electricity across the country, we might not to send so many Boulder youth off to the Middle East worrying about our oil supplies.