Radon Health Mines
by Peter Goin
Eileen complains about sore knuckles and toes. She rubs her hands, over and over again. I am reminded of Shakespeare's familiar quote in Macbeth, "Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One; two: why then, 'tis time to do't. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie!" Whether blood that stains the psyche or an aberrant immune system response, the ailment is incurable. The die is cast. Blood tests confirm the possible onset of rheumatoid arthritis. This heroine is condemned to suffer in silence. Only the afflicted truly understand a chronic disease accompanied by marked deformities.
"Do you believe in homeopathic medicine?" I ask.
My friend is a scientist, a linear thinker who believes in the promise and hope of science. "All things are possible," she responds quietly.
"Are you open to alternative forms of medicinal treatment?"
After a long pause, this heroine suggests, "Hmmm ... let's talk about something else."
As the brown hills of eastern Oregon pass by the window, I begin to think of the roots of landscape formation. I am not talking about Stephen J. Gould's distant view of geology that neatly ignores human presence. Instead, I am trying tounderstand how humans have created the world in their own image. I offer to change the subject.
"Do you realize that mining is one of the most significant and influential technologies in world history?" Living in my state, Nevada, means confronting mining as a dominant industry.
"Uh, mining?" She is not impressed.
Clearly, environmentalists have stigmatized mining as an easy target. Who can blame them? The physical act of mining has been injurious to workers. Mining operations devastate fields and forests. When the ores are washed, the water poisons the brooks and streams, destroying the fish or driving them away. Even the language of mining speaks of its devastation — blast, dump, crush, extract, spoil, waste and exhaust. EPA superfund sites, toxic waste designations, orange water anddenuded streambeds offer silent testimony to the legacy of mining. There has been something sinister about the entire act of mining. No one entered the mine in civilized states until relatively modern times except as a prisoner of war, a criminal, or a slave. Mines became the first completely inorganic environment to be created and lived in by humans. Field and forest and stream and ocean are the environment of life; the mine is the environment of minerals and metals. Within thesubterranean rock, there is no life. The face of the mine is shapeless, no friendly trees or clouds to greet the eye. Daylighthas been abolished, and the rhythms of the natural world altered. Continuous day and night production first came into existence in the mine. This is an environment of work, a colorless, tasteless and shapeless world.
Yet these same roots spawned an increase in global capitalist economy. Mining provides gold that is still a universal indicator for currency value. From the mine came not just reliable currency, but also the steam engine and locomotive, theescalator, the elevator, ventilating systems and the subway for urban transportation. Civilization, as we know it, depends upon the mining economy.
"I think I need to do a book about mining."
"You're crazy. Nobody is interested in mining."
I know this. For many years, I have felt that the study of mining as a cultural landscape would be unappreciated. Manyyears ago, while working as a book buyer for a large San Francisco bookstore, I noticed that people rarely bought books on mining. It is almost as if we prefer not to know.
"Who cares?" My friend's emphasis is not that people shouldn't care, but that the history of mining is a legacy of conquest and spoil. "It's depressing."
"But think of this. Mining is a major industry. Most books on mining focus on the evolution of the technology of mining or labor history. As an alternative, what about the role of the mine in developing a sense of place7." What about the RadonHealth Mines in Montana?
* * * * *
In 1951, during a period of ore exploration near Butte, Montana, a mining geologist stumbled upon an alleged health benefit from low-level exposure to radon. He noticed that a Los Angeles woman claimed that after several visits to one of the underground uranium mines, her bursitis disappeared. Brochures from the health mines proclaim that a stampede of sufferers demanded access to the now defunct mines.
Radon is a naturally occurring, inert, odorless and gaseous element found in almost all types of rocks and soils. The aging or disintegration of radium forms radon gas. When inhaled, radon is easily absorbed into the blood stream. Radon enters the body in three methods — direct inhalation, absorption through the skin in water baths and through ingesting radon in water. Anecdotal evidence suggests that radon gas has an activating effect on the endocrine gland system. Visitors to the mines claim relief from allergies, arthritis, bursitis, gout, asthma, emphysema, lupus, sinusitis, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, enlarged prostate, eczema, psoriasis, headaches and from some symptoms of diabetes. Radioactive baths are alleged to lower blood pressure. Mine operators claim that a minimum number of 32 visits are necessary to allow the radon gas to start cleansing the body. Many visitors stay between 11 to 16 days to allow for three mine visits a day. Each hour in the mine requires a three-hour interval.
"I really believe in it," offers a relaxed but radioactive woman resting on a recycled couch deep within the Merry Widow Health Mine. At the Free Enterprise Health Mine, Phyllis N. wrote, "I feel so great since our visits to the mine I just can't believe it! I've never had to take my pain medication since my return. The joint pains and terrible headaches and fatigue are a thing of the past. I got home and house-cleaned like mad, figuring to do it while I felt so good, but I still feel great." loe S. wrote that "A year ago I couldn't dress myself or get out of the bathtub without help. My feet were so swollen I couldn't wear shoes. At first I felt like I didn't get any results from my time in the mine. But now I've been deer hunting, danced a couple of times and played my guitar. I can even type a little. We'll see you next year ..." Anita M. wrote that, "To say that I was skeptical would be quite a monumental understatement — desperate times call for desperate measures. I took 20 one-hour sessions underground in 1993. Five weeks passed. I began to notice an almost overwhelming sense of well being — even a feeling of strength — something foreign to me for the last 25 years. Living close by allows me regular attendance. In my opinion, God has given us each the opportunity to make an informed choice for this alternative to drug therapy." The health mines also offer therapy sessions for arthritic pets; space is available first come, first serve. Unrulypets and barking dogs may be asked to leave. Donations are cheerfully accepted. All mines are smoke — and fragrance —free.
The drive from Portland, Oregon, to Butte, Montana, is long and tiring. Eileen agreed to accompany me — to model in the mines. I knew from researching the sites that many people are not willing to be photographed. For example, the Amish, who believe in homeopathic relief and attend the health mines in great numbers, do not want to be photographed. I needed a model.
I was glad that my friend agreed to come with me. I wanted the company. In other projects, I had been in harm's way at the Nevada Test Site, the Trinity site, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Marshall Island sites of Bikini and Enewetak. Once again, I will be within a radioactive environment. This thought emerged again and again in my mind. After all, it is difficult to believe that sitting on an old folding chair or recycled couch under heat lamps 85 feet below the surface in a damp mine radiating radon can in any way be beneficial.
After the first hour in the Sunshine Health mine, my breath pushed the Geiger counter over the scale. The buzz of the electrons was disturbing, and I can still vividly remember the staccato chatter.
"Stop worrying" a mine caretaker tried to reassure me. In areas of Africa, he offers,"... elephants, afflicted with arthritis, have beaten trails for hundreds of miles to radioactive ore outcrops to inhale radioactive gases rising from the earth fissures." I don't say anything.
Most of the people in the mines are retirees. Montana health officials have set voluntary guidelines that limit exposure to one-tenth of the federal standard for uranium miners. Pregnant women and children were restricted in 1988. "Howya feelin'?" A woman asks from the shadows. "Any better?" I am not entirely sure how to respond. "Whaddya doin'?" I begin totell the story about my friend with the rheumatoid arthritis; but before I can finish, my inquisitor nods knowingly and returns to her reading. Before I can finish setting up my 4 x 5, an obese woman wearing a stained sweatshirt urges "... hang in there; it works."
Devotees speak of the healing mystery of radon with evangelical fervor. "The doctors told me there was nothing they could do for me ... after time at the mine for a few days, the pain in my hips and legs went away. My family and friends can't believe what they're seeing. I'm now able to clean and vacuum and many things I haven't done in years. I believe it is God's way of healing and I praise Him for it," writes Marie K. of Winnipeg. Radon users suspect that the medical andpharmaceutical industries covet high-priced practices and potions. They think that there is a conspiracy to keep people from knowing about the inexpensive radon remedy. Others simply believe that the mines are a poor man's resort wherenewly-found friends get together for dinners and take side trips and just watch the sunset. "What can it hurt?" I am told.
I tried to limit my visits to each of five mines according to the prescribed health formula — one hour in the mine and three hours out. I would start early in the morning — photograph for one hour and then wait for the next cycle. I would photograph throughout the day and night. The 1:3 break provided time for reading, hiking, sleeping or preparing meals. I watched all the videocassettes filled with earnest testimonials. I interviewed the mine operators. I photographed the exteriors of the mines. Then, after the timer buzzed, I went back into the mine.
But an hour is just not enough time. These mines are not easy to photograph. They are dark and damp, and each mine uses many different light sources from fluorescent to quartz halogen to sodium vapor lights. Heat lamps combined with blue and green incandescent bulbs make the interiors of these mines colorful and surreal. Corners are abysmally dark. A fewlamps are extremely bright, but without reflective surfaces, the light falls off quickly. Mine people are either suspicious orobject to having their portraits made. When I set the tripod up in a room, people tend to leave. I am earnest in my explanations, but, after all, this is a media-savvy population. I can make the photographs, but getting model releases is another story. Some mine people don't care about how the photographs will be used; others remain skeptical. When people get up to leave, they must walk on wood planks down a narrow passageway. The tripod is set up on these wood planks and their departure inadvertently disturbs time exposures. Light meter readings are ineffective. The humidity fogs the lenses.
Exposed bulbs reflect the aperture on the film. The field of view is extremely limited.
And after a day, even three hours' rest out of every four did not significantly reduce my radioactive breath. I tried conscious exhaling, so much so that I almost hyperventilated. I must have looked ridiculous to Oscar and Barbara as they calmly carried their towels into the damp mine.
"What's wrong with him?" I overheard.
"Full of fear." Barbara said, quietly, but not that quietly.
Eileen's hair was still radioactive the next morning. I lost my ability to tell the difference between the increased humidity in the mine and my own sense of emotional fallout. While I know that radon is odorless, I swore that I could smell it. While I know that radon is tasteless, I avoided the water. After taking a shower, I realized that I had just immersed myself in a radioactive bath. Without thinking, I spit out as much saliva as I could bring into my mouth. Does boiling the water release the radon trapped in the water?
"We're here again, where we should be. To relieve our pains, as many will see. We've been to the Mine and feel much better. Bobby went down in shorts, no sweater. Thinks the more exposed, the better. Give me a jacket, it's too cold for me! Been coming six years, missed only one. That again will never be done! Bobby was in bad shape, he suffers with gout. We come to Free Enterprise to knock it out. The mineral water, we will always drink. It helps us also, or so we think." — Bobby & Brenda S.
The negatives came out! Multiple flashes and time exposures made the mines visible. Eileen's rheumatoid arthritis has receded. My breath is no longer radioactive. I am home. We need to have hope, and the idea of a health mine is more than an anecdotal expression of hope's effect. Perhaps the point is not whether the therapy actually works.
The idea of a health mine is hopeful. Uranium mines removed from the harmful paradigm of earth's destruction andexploitation and placed within the context of healing is truly remarkable. While it is clearly difficult to clinically prove thebenefits of radon exposure, this symbol of a mine healing our bodies and ourselves opens the door to a different interpretation of the mine in western society. The testimonials continue. •
Peter Coin is a professor of art in photography and video at the University of Nevada, Reno. His photographs have been exhibited in more than 50 museums nationally and internationally, and he is the author of four books.
A previous version of this article appeared in DoubleTake magazine, Spring 1999. It is taken from the collaborative project by Peter Goin and Elizabeth Raymond that interprets the perception of mining landscapes. All photographs are by Peter Goin, copyright 1998. All rights reserved.
The University of Texas Press published Humanature by Peter Goin in 1996, and the photographs were exhibited at the Houston Center for Photography in 1999. This article is Peter's research text for a chapter in a collaborative book co-authored with C. Elizabeth Raymond titled Changing Mines in America under development by George Thompson and the Center for American Places in Harrisonburg, Virginia.