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Patients Find Healthy Vein in Old Austrian Mine

High in the Austrian Alps, patients wait in bathrobes and sandals to take a small train deep inside a disused mine to breathe in a natural radioactive gas, hoping it will help what ails them.

After a bumpy 20-minute ride, they arrive in one of four stations at the "Heilstollen," or "health mine," in the heart of Radhausberg mountain south of Salzburg -- a brief trip to the "tropics" while never leaving Europe.

Once there, they undress, lie down on camping beds and take a cure that has drawn millions of people worldwide to the unexpected heat, humidity and special atmosphere two kilometers (just over a mile) inside this Alpine peak.

Bad Gastein used to be a gold mine, and produced more than 800 kilos (1,760 pounds) of the precious metal each year during its 16th-century heyday. These days it attracts those hunting for a different type of good fortune, some longed-for relief from rheumatism, arthritis, asthma and skin conditions.

"The secret of its medical success comes from the ideal combination of three factors -- a constant temperature between 37 and 41 degrees C (99 to 106 degrees F), near 100 percent humidity, and a high natural level of radon gas," said Franz Zaver Rieser, a manager at the medical centre based at the opening of the mine.

"We receive 10,000 patients a year, and over 55 years in operation about three million patients have passed through the various mine areas," he said.

The beneficial properties were discovered around 1946, when miners searching unsuccessfully for the last traces of gold noticed their rheumatism, skin problems and respiratory difficulties had temporarily disappeared or were considerably improved after spending time underground.

Following a series of scientific studies on its effects, the mine was reopened in 1952 as what the organisers say is the world's only "health mine."

Gernot Strauss, part of the medical team at th
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