Dispelling Nuclear Phantoms

Dispelling Nuclear Phantoms

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.)

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.

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