Let Us Now Praise Phony Cures

Chatterbox is appalled by a photo essay in the spring issue of Double Take , the literate and handsomely illustrated quarterly edited by Robert Coles under the auspices of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. The photo essay’s subject–the radon “health mines” of Montana, where arthritics go in search of a cure–is a good one, and the photographs are superb. What appalled Chatterbox was the credulous tone taken by photographer Peter Goin in his accompanying text. Here is the conclusion of his essay:

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. It is the idea of a health mine that is hopeful. Uranium mines, removed from the harmful paradigm of Earth’s destruction and exploitation and placed within the context of healing, are truly remarkable. While it may be difficult to clinically prove the benefits 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.

Chatterbox is aware that photographers tend to be a nonjudgmental lot, at least verbally; that’s an occupational hazard. But Coles, the editor, is an M.D. and professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at no less august an institution than Harvard Medical School. How can he allow such hooey into his magazine? The consensus within the medical and regulatory community is that radon gas does not cure arthritis or anything else, but that it does cause cancer. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to radon gas is, after smoking, the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that radon causes between 15,000 and 22,000 lung-cancer deaths each year. Other groups that consider radon a serious health risk include the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the American Lung Association. When the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (an organization at the Harvard School of Public Health) ranked the causes of premature death in the home, the inhalation of radon gas came in first–before (in order) “falling,” “poisoning,” “fires and burns,” “suffocation,” “firearms,” and “environmental tobacco smoke.”

Goin’s article contains no statistics about the health risks associated with radon. It does, however, report that mine operators, who charge $2.50 to $5 per visit, say “a minimum of thirty-two visits are necessary to allow the radon gas to start cleansing the body.” Goin notes, in passing, that visits are restricted to one hour, followed by a three-hour interval, limiting visitors to three sessions per day. But he doesn’t say that these limits came about in the mid-1980s as a result of an agreement reached with Montana health officials, who were alarmed to discover there were no time restrictions on mine visits. The state also supposedly got the mine owners to agree not to let pregnant women (duh!) into the mines; but a notice for the Free Enterprise Health Mine says merely that “[p]regnant women are advised to consult with a physician before radon therapy”). Children are allowed in if they can get a doctor’s prescription.

Are the Montana health mines giving anyone cancer? Steve Page, director of the EPA’s Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, notes that the National Academy of Sciences concluded that no level of radon is safe, and that exposure in the mines adds to exposure people may already be getting at home; 6 percent of all homes in the United States currently have high radon-exposure levels. George Eicholtz, coordinator for Montana’s radiological-health program, says that even if you go down into a radon mine for just one hour, it’s hard to know what level of radiation you’re exposing yourself to, because the radon levels constantly fluctuate. The “biggest issue with these mines,” Page says, “may be worker exposure,” since mine employees presumably breathe in more radon gas than anyone else.

At the very least, Goin’s article is guilty of presenting radon quackery as a marvelous slice of folk culture. It helps that radon is a naturally occurring phenomenon; Chatterbox doubts Double Take would be enchanted by psoriasis-sufferers who skinny-dipped in toxic waste dumps. The fact that the radon cure has a spiritual overlay–many visitors are evangelical Christians–probably makes it especially appealing to Coles, who for years has railed against the arrogance of the secular Establishment. Chatterbox doesn’t suppose there’s much danger that the well-educated readers of Double Take are likely to make pilgrimages of their own to the health mines. Still, one can imagine radon health mine proprietors posting Goin’s article for visitors who are less interested in the mines’ folk authenticity (“perhaps the point is not whether the therapy actually works”) than in curing their rheumatism. By not writing about the scientific evidence against the radon cure–and the possible cancer risk it poses–Goin and his illustrious physician-editor are doing the radon believers a disservice.