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Radon Hazards of Luminous Timepieces

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In this months BHI mag (November 2018) is an article “Radon Hazards of Luminous Timepieces” Understanding Risks From vintage watches.

Luminous timepieces really took off during the Great War, when a wristwatch with a luminous dial quickly became regarded as a necessity. The hazards of radium paint were highlighted by the story of the “Radium Girls”, luminous dial painters of the 1920s not only shaped their brushes with their lips ,but painted their teeth, lips and eyebrows with luminous radium paint, consuming significant amounts of radium. When Radium enters the body it results in cancers and many died from this.

The problem for us watch repairers is detecting if the vintage watch you are repairing/servicing has a radium dial or hands is not easy. Radio-luminescent paint ceases to glow after a few years, so lack of glow from the paint is not a reliable indication of whether it is radioactive or not. The only way to be 100% sure is to use a radiation detector.

Conclusion
Radiation and radon gas from radio - luminescent paint a potentially dangerous to watch collectors and repairers. Open storage in living or working areas that contain potential Radio-luminescent paint should be avoided. For those who regularly work on vintage watches should invest in a radon detector. If not sure use a mask when disassembling and store the dials and hands under cover and wear finger cots when handling.

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Radium like asbestos needs to be treated with respect, but both seem to garner a lot of fear mongering. I dabble  in antique radio restoration and a lot of radios used asbestos cloth sheets for heat control. the subject of what to do comes up a lot.just like the subject of radioactive paint from days gone by. With asbestos as with the paint, if you leave it alone there is no risk. Only if you start cutting grinding or scraping will you release particles into the air. That is the hazard. With asbestos in radios just leave it alone. or if you feel strongly about it you can spray it with water remove it to a plastic bag seal the bag and be done with it. As clockboy states finger cots a dust mask and store in a sealed container and all is good. If you are not sure if the watch you are working on is radioactive and you do not wish to assume the risk, what little there is, while taking the proper precautions, then pass such work on to some one else. For me, i will probably never work on a radium watch. But if I do, at least I have a clear understanding of what I am up against and how to handle the situation to minimize the risk to myself and others around me. That is the beauty of forums like this with learned members, being informed goes a long way to being safe.

Thanks for posting and the heads up...

Ron 

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Be aware that even if the dial no longer glows, it is still probably radioactive, since the half life of Radium is around 1600 years, and other transuranic elements are probably present with similar or longer half lives. 

The hazard is relatively low, but you should still take care. If removing old lume, wear gloves, and a mask, and keep the old lume in a paste form by using some form of barrier material, water, while it may leave marks is probably OK.

Something oil based may be better, and any solvent that evaporates rapidly may transport the particles into the air. The amount of material involved is pretty small, and the radioactivity present in a single watch dial is not a huge amount, but it should be treated with respect to avoid ingesting it.

Skin contact, while ill advised is less hazardous, if you do get it on your skin, wash it off with plenty of water and soap or hand cleaner. In this sense, it is similar to things like asbestos,  lead and mercury, all of which you are likely to encounter in the environment naturally, and all of which present a small, but not insignificant environmental hazard. 

There is an interesting article  on Wikipedia -> here <-   particularly the section on safety. 

The hazard is greater when the material is on a more industrial scale. This article might be of interest in that respect.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-34862223

In summary, treat with respect, but don't get too paranoid, just exercise suitable caution.


Slightly off topic. If you are interested in detecting radium and other radioactive particles, you can obviously buy a suitable detector, or if you like a challenge, you can build your own, using a geiger tube, or even a pin diode. Google keywords "open source geiger counter." or "pin diode radiation detector"

I have a bunch of old pin diode based dosimeters in my junk pile, which I intend to convert into counters when I get a bit of spare time. See here for more -> http://www.stm32duino.com/viewtopic.php?t=3322

Edited by AndyHull

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For vintage watches that the hands may have radium lume on them and they are not painted I just drop them into a small jar of acetone and let it dissolve the lume. I then remove the hands and tip the acetone (about 20mills only)into my jar of spent cleaning fluid which is left in the corner of my shed to evaporate down and then the heavier parts like turps that dont evaporate are stored in a container to go to my local council recycler that takes oil and paint thinners. The little amount of radium in it is of no risk as I don't touch that many old watches and it means I don't have to worry about dust coming up from the hands when I remove the old lume.

I do take care even with the movement and case and ensure I wash my hands after dismantling them for cleaning and usually wear finger cots too.

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On a related topic what I am more concerned with are Russian sub clocks. Not the 'made for tourists' ones, but ones that have actually served time on a Russian sub, thankfully there are not that many of those about.

See this news article for what I'm talking about.

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3556824/Radioactive-clock-killed-Husband-s-gift-wife-Russian-sub-gave-deadly-rays.html

 

But even this is not good to have in the kitchen, but it would take many years before it did any real harm

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Hi Clockboy, Years ago  was doing business at a nuclear power station, I was wearing my Dad`s old Certina watch which set the radiation alarm off whilst going through a gate. I was advised not to wear it !!  

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It's an important subject for some more so than others. It always concerns me though, when this is mentioned, if the insurance companies are going to pick up on it.

I can imagine them laying down conditions for storage in the home, like watches to be stored in lead lined containers or something ridiculous.

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The actual dose you receive from working with lume is probably relatively insignificant, even if it comes in contact with your skin.

Ingesting or inhaling lume on the other hand presents a somewhat greater risk, particularly if you do so regularly.

If you were to remove and store all of the lume from every watch you ever encountered, and then swig the resulting concoction, the acetone would be a more immediate hazard.

Here is a chart of relative doses that brings some perspective to things.

https://xkcd.com/radiation/

It is factually correct to state there is no such thing as a safe dose of ionising radiation, but since you are being bombarded with the stuff naturally, the additional risk of working (sensibly) with lume is relatively low. 

Flying from LA to New York is more risky I would suggest, and even then, the risk is pretty low.



 

Edited by AndyHull

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Well as someone who has been hammered with 7000 grays of xray radiation for cancer, plus a couple of pet scans and assorted xrays in a short period of time, Im all for avoiding any more.

As has been stated above in the scheme of things old lume is to be respected, just like every other chemical you come in contact with, most are unlikely to do you any damage with short exposure, however the cumulative effects are what bite you in the bum.

My last full time job was chasing up the MSDS and doing risk assessments on the 1700 chemicals used in the maintenance of the F111 aircraft. A bit of a shock to me as I figured out that I had had exposure to about 400 of those over more than 20 years.

Which probably explains the requirement for the radiation treatment.

The other thing that was highlighted in that job was, if it had more than 5 letters in the name or was unpronounceable, it probably wasnt good for you......

PPE is readily available these days use it as required.

Interesting discussion and some great replys.

 

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There Geiger counters out there on Ebay. Very simple ones just put it in your smartphone's 3.5 jack and install the related app and use it. 20-30 USD for the sensor. Youtube videos shoving remarkable accuracy compared to a real detector piece. I am planning to buy one.

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1 hour ago, szbalogh said:

There Geiger counters out there on Ebay. Very simple ones just put it in your smartphone's 3.5 jack and install the related app and use it. 20-30 USD for the sensor. Youtube videos shoving remarkable accuracy compared to a real detector piece. I am planning to buy one.

  i have a Giger Muler counter and have used it on several watches and air craft panel clocks.  it is a big, clunky, civil devence  unit..   i would not buy electronics from ebay.   it is important to buy with a guarante on this item.  vin

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On 11/7/2018 at 2:01 AM, AndyHull said:

The actual dose you receive from working with lume is probably relatively insignificant, even if it comes in contact with your skin.

Ingesting or inhaling lume on the other hand presents a somewhat greater risk, particularly if you do so regularly.

If you were to remove and store all of the lume from every watch you ever encountered, and then swig the resulting concoction, the acetone would be a more immediate hazard.

Here is a chart of relative doses that brings some perspective to things.

https://xkcd.com/radiation/

It is factually correct to state there is no such thing as a safe dose of ionising radiation, but since you are being bombarded with the stuff naturally, the additional risk of working (sensibly) with lume is relatively low. 

Flying from LA to New York is more risky I would suggest, and even then, the risk is pretty low.



 

Hi Andy,   B or even B+

May I add , however, ingested or inhaled dose not neccessarily end up as absorbed.

The radioactive nuclei is to chemically be in absorbable form and to remain in our system for sometime, it may not get absorbed and go through digestive system in which case the effect is neglegible. 

The alpha particle is a massive ion,  travels only a few centermeters in air.

This means folks surrounded by hundereds of vintage watches absorb no alpha emitting source and very little alpha radiation, as you well explained we get bigger dose from earth's background radiation. Radon girls kept ingesting the alpha source, some even wore radioactive makeup.it glew shiny.

The sun like any other star is a fusion reactor, making atoms including the ones our body is made of, dispite atmospheric sheilding we get big dose of radiation of massless particles it emits gamma so on, These are Electromagnetic particle we receive them even from galaxies which no longer exist.

High counts on the giger dose not mean we immediately get sick, if dosage accumeulates over time we will.

Regards nuce joe

 

 

 

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4 hours ago, AndyHull said:

B+ is all very well, but do I not get a medal?

 

Who dose Andy and medals may distract us from just living.  My decipline is nuclear science and graduated with collection of collage degrees, I can safely say I know I don,t Know much.

Eversince CERN started working, ground braking obserbations are made with each experiment, fundamentaly altering our understanding of the physics of this material existance. Multiverse may be a reality with different laws of physics.

Your post besides being mostly correct, is interesting in challanging our natural fear of unknown and warns against  blowing the fear out of proportion. Some articles on the subject tend to scare the reader.

I take this opportunity to say x-ray is atomic radiation not nuclear, weaker energy by several orders of magnitute. The fear of exposed may hurt as much as ill effects.

I have no access to youtube and didn,t see the video you sent. I hope it's msg tells us to enjoy life and avoid fear.

Regards joe

 

 

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If you want to read a more scientific assessment of the toxicity of radium specifically as opposed to ionising radiation in general, this might be of interest -> https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp144.pdf

Do bear in mind though that infrequent exposure while working with a few watch dials, if you use sensible precautions is till relatively low risk. Low risk, does not mean no risk, so do take care to minimises exposure.

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Just FYI, I picked up an FTLab headphone jack geiger counter, I can't vouch for it's accuracy, but it is picking up significant counts for the watches I own I know to have radium lume, and little to no counts for those I know/hoped to not have radium lume.

Very important to use it with your data and wifi disabled, was picking up some worrying levels of radiation before I copped this. Almost set a match to the place! :biggrin:

IMG_6751.JPG

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