Is Your Fear of Radiation Irrational?
by Geoff Watts, Mosaic Science
Bad Gastein in the Austrian Alps. It’s 10am on a Wednesday in early March, cold and snowy – but not in the entrance to the main gallery of what was once a gold mine. Togged out in swimming trunks, flip-flops and a bath robe, I have just squeezed into one of the carriages of a narrow-gauge railway that’s about to carry me 2 km into the heart of the Radhausberg mountain.
Fifteen minutes later we’re there and I’m ready to enjoy what the brochures insist will be a health-enhancing environment. Enjoyment, of course, is a subjective term. The temperature inside the mountain’s dimly lit tunnels is around 40°C, and the humidity is 100 per cent. The sweat’s already begun to flow. More important, I’m breathing an atmosphere rich in radon.
Hang on… radon? That’s a radioactive gas. Yet here I am, without so much as a film badge dosimeter, never mind the protection of a lead apron, among a group of people who have paid to come to the Gasteiner Heilstollen (“healing galleries”) and willingly, even eagerly, undergo gruelling sessions in physical discomfort because of a much-contested theory that small doses of radiation are not just harmless, but act as a stimulant to good health.