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Radioactive Materials in Antiques

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This page describes radioactive material found in some antiques.

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Overivew

Among the furniture, clothing, jewelry, books, dolls, dishes, and many other objects sold at flea markets and antique shops, you will likely find items that contain radioactive compounds. These items were generally made and originally sold before the health effects of radiation were well- understood and long before radiation protection regulations were put in place.

Many antiques actively exploit the radioactive properties of radionuclides:

These items emit small amounts of radiation, but enough to register on a hand-held Geiger Counter.

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Clocks, Watches and Instrument Dials

When radium was discovered in the early 1900’s, people were fascinated with its mysterious glow. The hands and faces of some clocks, watches, and ship and airplane instruments were painted with paints containing radium to make them glow in the dark.

Over time, however, experts discovered that radium is highly radioactive and emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Radium is particularly hazardous if inhaled or ingested because it then emits radiation directly to living tissue. Many radium dial painters licked the bristles of their paintbrushes to create fine tips for applying the paint to these small surfaces. Later many of them developed bone cancer, primarily in their jaws. By the 1970's, the practice of using radium on watch dials ended.

Caution
Do not attempt to disassemble radium watches or instruments.

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Ceramics

Glazes used for tiles, pottery, and other ceramics made before the 1960’s, often contain elevated levels of naturally-occurring radionuclides. Manufacturers typically used uranium, thorium, and/or potassium-40, all of which emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. As recently as the 1930s, Fiestaware® used uranium oxides to create the distinctive orange-red color of its dinnerware.

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Glass

Early 19th century European glass makers sometimes added small amounts of uranium to glass as a yellow-green coloring agent. Because of its yellowish color, this type of glass was called vaseline or canary glass. In part, collectors like canary glass for the attractive green glow the uranium gives off when exposed to a black light.

Starting around 1970, the intentional use of radioactive coloring agents in commercial glazes and glasses in the U.S. dramatically decreased. However their use continues in other countries, and ceramics and glasses containing radioactive coloring agents may occasionally enter the United States.

Antiques containing radioactive materials will continue to emit low levels of radiation for many years.

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Who is protecting you

The States

Each state has the authority to regulate naturally- occurring radioactive materials, including uranium, thorium, and radium.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

NRC establishes regulations for licensing the sale, use, and disposal of radioactive materials. Licensing requirements for the use of radioactive materials in consumer products are based on the quantity and radioactivity of the materials. Generally, NRC does not regulate antiques, but there are a few exception depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The Radioactive Source Reduction and Management initiatives at EPA identify uses of radioactive sealed sources that could be replaced by non-nuclear sources. It also works with the scrap metal and demolition industries in the U.S. and with international organizations to keep radioactive materials out of the nation's metal supply. This helps protect against the possibility of contaminated consumer products. EPA also works with the nationwide Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors to investigate methods for keeping radioactive materials out of consumer products. Generally, EPA does not regulate antiques, but there are a few exceptions depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)

DOT regulates the transport of hazardous materials, including radioactive materials, by highway, rail, air, and vessel. Hazardous materials regulations are contained in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Generally, DOT does not regulate the shipment of antiques, but there are a few exception depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

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What you can do to protect yourself

Antiques that contain radioactive material do not normally pose a significant hazard if they are intact and in good condition. The more radioactive antiques added to your collection the greater the potential hazard. Even though the potential radiation exposure from your antiques is very small, it is still possible to reduce it further.

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Resources

Radium
March 12, 2012. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Radiation Protection
On this page, you can learn basic information about radium, which is found in some antiques.
Is Anything We Use in Everyday Life Radioactive?
March 12, 2012. Health Physics Society
This link leads you to a page where you can read about common items that may contain radioactive materials.
Heavy-element chemistry at Los Alamos
September 17, 2012. U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory
This link takes you to a page where you can read about why glass objects containing uranium glow green under the UV radiation from a black light.
What Were They Drinking? Researchers Investigate Radioactive Crock Pots
September 17, 2012. National Institute of Standards and Technology
Read about all the crazy things people did with radium before they understood its dangers!

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