Q. Is it
news is that most antiques and collectables are not significantly radioactive, and
the ones that are, are usually fairly easy to spot. For example, clocks, watches,
compasses and instruments with luminous dials are immediately suspect,
especially if they were made prior to the 1950s when the use of radium paint
A. Some items
are helpfully labeled as being radioactive. Soon after its discovery by Marie
Curie in 1898 radium became a popular ingredient in a wide variety of quack
therapies, treatments and remedies: these should be handled with great care as
the radioactive materials can escape or may have deteriorated. Always seek
expert advice if you have any safety concerns. In the UK the place to begin is
the Health and Safety Executive.
glass and ceramic items are not so easy to identify, though green or pale
yellow Vaseline glass, also known as Depression glass or Uranium glass, popular
in the 1920s and produced until the 1950s, has a distinctive lustre in
sunlight, and usually glows or luminesces strongly when exposed to ultraviolet
Q. How harmful
or dangerous are radioactive antiques and collectables?
A. There’s no
easy answer; it’s a little known fact that virtually everything, including
you, the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the rocks beneath our
feet are radioactive to some extent. This is perfectly normal: it has been that
way since the beginning of time, and we have evolved to live with it.
typically small amounts of radioactivity that may be found in some antiques and
collectables tend to produce readings that are only a little higher than normal
background levels and are generally not considered to be harmful. Nevertheless
it is wise to take precautions when storing radioactive items, and of course
they should be kept well out of the reach of children – as you would with any
materials in glass and ceramics are in low concentrations and contained within
solid masses and therefore unlikely to ever find their way into our bodies –
where it can become a problem.
But there are exceptions. The most notable one
is luminous radium paint. Over time it can deteriorate and produce fine dust
particles, which could be harmful if ingested. It’s unlikely to happen if the
item is intact but if it is dismantled or damaged the particles may be
Clearly, extreme care should be taken in the handling of such items and
if you are in any doubt as to their safety you should seek expert help or have
it safely disposed of by a company licensed to handle hazardous materials.
Images: anythingradioactive & orau.org Fiestaware info: wikipedia