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Should I be worried about radium?


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I'm posting this here as I think it will be of interest to anyone working with radium dials and watches.


I would suggest that there is actually very little measurable risk from handling a few radium watch hands, so long as you wash your own hands afterwards, and make sure that you don't grind up significant amounts of the material and release it in to the air.  The point here being that you would need significant amounts. Grams of dust, not a few microgrammes. 

You have to bear in mind that the materials involved are indeed radioactive, and that they present a hazard, but that hazard is a cumulative one. In other words the radiation they produce would need to be present for a considerable period of time and in significant amounts to produce a measurable statistical risk.

In the environment around us at all times, there are similar levels of radioactive materials to the amount you would be encountering in a watch hand.

Even the humble banana is very very very slightly radioactive, due to the fact that it is a good source of potassium (which we need for our biological health), some of which is naturally radioactive.

We are perfectly capable of dealing with the tiny amount of damage this radiation does.

We probably receive far more DNA damage walking around on a nice sunny day in the snow, from ultraviolet light. Our biology is designed to deal with this in the same way that we deal with a cut finger or any other damage.

Radiation damage from alpha and beta emitters (like radium) is generally very low level. The harm would come if you treated the stuff the same way the Radium Girls, who painted radium dials for a living did. They absorbed many millions of times more radium than you would ever be exposed to from a few minutes directly handling the radium in a few watch hands.

I've posted the chart below a few times, but it is relevant. I would estimate your dose from staying in the room where a few watch hands have been exposed to the elements for a few hours, would not even be measurable. It certainly wouldn't increase background levels by any significant amount.

image.thumb.png.556c023c6ecfc2ce9978402eff748c36.png

 

If, for a dare, you were crazy enough to eat the watch hands,  you would mainly ingest some steel, some zinc sulphide and a tiny amount of radium. You would excrete the majority of the radium, but a tiny tiny amount of an already tiny amount *might* be absorbed, but you would probably absorb more radioactivity from eating a few bananas. The most dangerous thing about eating them might be from the obvious risk of eating sharp bits of metal. I am obviously not advocating eating watch hands, radioactive or otherwise.

If you have already cleaned up the surfaces that might have had a few micrograms of radium on them, then you will be unlikely to be able to measure any increase in background radiation levels.

If you were still concerned, then take some measurements with a Geiger counter of the general background radiation elsewhere. In the kitchen for an hour, in the garden for an hour, in your workplace perhaps for an hour, and get a good feeling for what is normal, then re-measure in the area that you are worried about. I would doubt if you can detect anything above background.

Even if the area seems to have slightly higher levels than normal,  this may still be normal, and may have existed prior to your watch hand work.  Take a look at the above chart and you will see that you need significantly higher levels to warrant concern.
 

If you live in Aberdeen for example, or Devon, or anywhere that there is granite in the local geology, then you will naturally be exposed to slightly higher levels of radiation from uranium, radon and other naturally occurring radioactive materials than you would in say Dover which is geologically mainly chalk and limestone.

This does not lead to any significant risk. Aberdonians do not grow two heads or glow in the dark as a result.

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We're all exposed to risks of all types throughout our working lives, some obviously more than others, but we do take them on a consistent basis without giving it a second thought most days. If you drive a car there's a huge risk involved. I saw a head-on collision just last night right in front of me and I've been slammed into more than once by drivers paying little or no attention. I work with toxic lumber nearly every day, some more toxic than others, but all wood particles are known carcinogens and throughout my working years have been exposed to a long list of toxic chemicals, even sprayed paint with radioactive isotopes mixed into it (I was unaware of it until I bothered reading the MSDS and quit shortly thereafter) not to mention autobody fumes from bondo, paint and other substances as well as metal working shops. The point being if it's a concern to you take whatever precautions you deem reasonable and if you're not sure don't fool with it until you are sure, but just getting out of bed, taking the train or bus to work involves risks that can get you killed without warning.    We pays our money and takes our chances as a friend once told me.

Edited by amello
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  • 1 month later...

I was pondering this topic again this morning.  Here is another Radiation dose chart that looks like similar data as above but formatted differently.  I am also posting a document produced by the NRC.  A screen capture of the most interesting page that relates to watches and watchmakers is also posted here.

My Dad worked on watches six days a week, 51 weeks a year from 1947 to 1980 (he continued working after 1980 but only a few days per week).  There was radium lume for re-luming hands and dials in his watchbench for that entire time until last year when I removed it.  He lived 92 years.  Cause of death was a combination of blood loss and heart failure. Until the last year, he lived a full and active life.  He was prone to use those nasty chemicals to kill bugs in the yard...that were later banned.

I don't think, anecdotally, that radium had any observable effect on him.

radiation_chart_3.jpg

2021-03-31 09_46_37-Radium exposure.pdf - Foxit Reader.png

Radium exposure.pdf

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  • 1 month later...

The radium craze permeated almost every aspect of American society, it featured in everything from religious sermons to cartoons and films. It became a plot device in novels and influenced the naming of consumer products ranging from fertilizers to cigarettes to cosmetics. There was even a nightclub in Brooklyn called ‘The Radium Club’ and casinos began playing radium roulette played in the dark with a ball and roulette wheel painted with glowing radium. The extreme rarity of radium made it a prestige item, in 1903 the New York Times reported that a single gram cost $2,000. This rarity coupled with the element’s ability to glow in the dark captured the public’s imagination. Business soon began to capitalise on this popularity using radium as a selling point for everything from make-up to butter. While many of these products didn’t actually include any radium, others did.   Radium’s medical applications were touted by many doctors and scientists and the radioactive metal became associated with rejuvenation and invigoration. A slew of products began to be sold by quack doctors including ‘radium emanators’ and tablets like Radione which were advertised to enthuse ordinary water with radium’s ‘life-giving’ properties. However, it was a seemingly insignificant product, a watch with a luminous face, which would expose the horrifying dangers of radium misuse.

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51 minutes ago, LittleWatchShop said:

There was a water dispenser called a "Revigator" that had radium and supposed to have health benefits.  I had one.  Buried it.

Here's an extract from Radium USA . Radium water was drunk by the rich and famous, not by the working-class girls from Newark. It was a bit of a craze in American life. The element was dubbed “liquid sunshine,” and it lit up not just the hospitals and drawing rooms of America but its theaters, musical halls, grocery stores, and bookshelves. A song entitled “Radium Dance” became a huge hit after being in the Broadway musical Pif ! Paf ! Pouf! On sale were radium jock straps and lingerie, radium butter, radium milk, radium toothpaste (guaranteeing a brighter smile with every brushing), and even radium-laced face creams, soaps, and compact powders. There was the “Radium Eclipse Sprayer” that “quickly kills all flies, mosquitos, roaches” and “has no equal as a cleaner of furniture, porcelain, and tile. It is harmless to humans and easy to use.”

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One of the alarming aspects of this is that radium used on an industrial scale like this presumably resulted in the disposal of large volumes of contaminated scrap and incinerated materials. This was often done on site, without any documentation or thoughts for the environment. One or two radium painted dials may not present any significant hazard, but the large scale disposal of waste associated with these industries does, and as such it also presents a major clean up headache.

I've posted about the glowing beaches of Delgety bay before, and also about Timex Dundee paying a contractor to dispose of dial waste drums in the North sea. Allegedly they were simply hurled from the side of a fishing boat into the Tay estuary, where they no doubt are slowly making their way into the environment.   

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-23098001

https://www.researchgate.net/project/Construction-Site-Health-and-Safety-Dealing-with-Radium-in-site-remediation
 

There is nothing particularly unique to Scotland about these activities. I have no doubt this sort of practice went on around the world in whatever areas radium and other materials of this nature were being processed and used. Out of site, out of mind seems to have been the overriding driving force behind this disposal. Get rid of it in some "remote" place and nobody will notice. Keep the financial costs low and to hell with the environmental consequences.

Edited by AndyHull
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  • 2 weeks later...

Wife and I just watched "Radium Girls" last night. Crazy Coincidence.  Based on past true events. Not a terrible flick. I have a few Ingraham and Westclox "dollar watch" vintage pocketwatches that have the stuff on em. When I dismantled and serviced them i was careful to wear regular exam gloves, I didn't handle the dial any more than I had to, and washed my hands when I got done. The only time I had pause was thinking about the tragic history and people lost associated with the stuff. 

Thanks for the valuable info shared tho. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I only have one watch in my collection which has radium lume (a 1956 Omega) but rightly or wrongly I do worry about wearing it. I've read most of the posts on this thread and the conclusion seems to be that there is a risk but it's low and most of the risk comes from lume dust if you open the watch. I don't intend to open the case and I only wear it occasionally for a few hours at a time.

I believe, but correct me if I'm wrong, that you need a licence in the UK to handle radioactive materials. 

So my questions is: Are there any UK watchmakers willing or able to remove the radium lume from the hands and hour markers? I would consider going down this route if it was possible.

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  • 1 month later...

I was wondering about whether professional watchmakers actually have a geiger counter in their toolbox.

I spent over a good hour last week googling all about this and realised the more I read the more diverse opinions i'd get on the safety of working with old radium lumed dials.

Some say the exposure risk is minimum and others say you might as well be writing your own death warrant lol.

Do any of you professionals out there however keep a geiger counter in your repairs toolbox or do you just assume every old watch from before the mid 70s is radioactive if it's lumed?

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😆 Would you still need lumed watchface dials if you did glow in the dark lol?

I am guessing like a lot of things in life. Some truth and some overhype, and whilst the risk is obviously there, its a matter of exposure, care and caution. It's not like you would be putting the tips of paint brushes in your mouth like those poor radium girls.

Lume replacement would be the most dangerous thing I am thinking when working with these dials. You wouldn't want the dust inhaled or absorbed/eaten via the airways and mouth.

 

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Like OH I have been around a long time and never had a problem and I dont glow either.  Its a question of common sense. If you are going to chew watch hands you have a problem if you treat it with care knowing the problem exists and take the required precautions you wont glow either.

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  • jdm pinned this topic

So if you are going to do a restoration, lets make this a totally hypothetical situation and lets say something 1950s, and it's going to be a complete restoration but the old radium lume is totally well past its used by date but still stuck onto the dial... would you guys do a safe removal and replace with modern lume or leave it? I just wonder what pros do in a situation like that.

Edited by WatchingOracle
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  • 4 weeks later...

I bought a 50s Rotary with radium hands/dial - pinging nicely on the Geiger counter 😧

Most of the radium is in the hands - which I will replace (taking all necessary precautions), but I'm not sure what to do with the dial.
Should I leave it as is (with radiation probably not much higher than that of background), or remove it ?

The radium on the numbers should come off with water, hopefully not damaging the dial, leaving the black number outlines.
I could just leave it at that, or try and replace the lume, which looks difficult.

I have a similar looking Universal Geneve : On that I replaced the hand lume, but left the dial as original. 
But as this is a cheapish watch I'm thinking it might be better to risk removing all the radium, then it's safer to wear and I can sell it as a non-radium watch.

(BTW I bought it because it was cheap and an old ETA 1256 movement, which I haven't seen before. I will re-plate that case!)

dial.thumb.jpg.8758ff824440c1899bd597ab4871106d.jpg

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On 5/3/2016 at 6:14 PM, dman2112 said:

Hello all,

I recently services a 1948 Glycine Bienne and it is in mint condition.  It is running beautifully and it has zero beat error and is running +2 sec per day.  I want to keep it, but I am concerned about the Radium.  Mayne I am being paranoid, but does anyone have any thoughts on this?  Should I sell it?

Any advice or experience with this would be greatly appreciated.

 

dman2112

I would not work on a radium dial....my videos

 

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 The food we eat is often contaminated by radioactivety surrounding us. I don't think handling or even wearing a watch with radium emitting nuclei poses any danger.

 You are recieving background radiation as you read this post. Just don't ingest a large amount of radioactive luminant.

Regs 

Joe

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4 hours ago, Nucejoe said:

 The food we eat is often contaminated by radioactivety surrounding us. I don't think handling or even wearing a watch with radium emitting nuclei poses any danger.

 You are recieving background radiation as you read this post. Just don't ingest a large amount of radioactive luminant.

Regs 

Joe

I posted an article and some graphics about watches and radium somewhere on this forum. After my thorough research, I concluded that it is of no concern. Don't lick a dial or hands. Don't flake it off and inhale it. 

Anecdotally, my Dad worked on radium watches every day for 30 years. He died at 93...no indication of radium sickness. 

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I used to work in a experimental reactor owned and operated by UNION CARBIDE. Did my own experiments as well as many assigned to me by my superiors.

Used to measure my exposure everyday, before and after appraoching the reactor, often spent hours near the core. My exposure never got close to alerting level. 

 

 

 

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  • 4 months later...

There are plenty of my fellow nerds on here, so I imagine at least a few of you have already seen today's XKCD. If not:

www.xkcd.com for the latest

https://xkcd.com/2568/ if you're reading this in the future for the specific cartoon in question. FYI, all XKCD cartoons have a bonus punchline if you hover your mouse over the image in the mouseover text. 

It's not directly applicable to the topic at hand, but it sent me down a rabbit hole until I found this (they sell modern spinthariscopes if you're interested):

https://unitednuclear.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=2_76&products_id=487

I don't know what it will do to assuage any concerns, but it will tell you if there's anything at all you might be concerned about to whatever degree you have decided is warranted. Might be able to give you a clue to the magnitude of the concern/non-concern in question if you've looked at enough dials to get a feel for what's "normal". I have a bunch of steel stock I rescued from dumpster at a decommissioning hospital when I worked at a software startup located in the former finance office (long story there) that I've always worried might be radioactive. I recall reading a while back about a rash of recycled steel coming out of China that was wildly radioactive due to its past life in medical equipment, so if you work with metal on a more macro scale at all, another potential use.

There is a consolidated mess of a thread about radium and radiation, so there is clearly some interest in the subject. Mods, please do not add this to the thread. That will make this information unsearchable, impossible to find, and it will disappear forever into the void that is the forum storage device, costing Mark money while returning nothing to community.

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 There is a  HTGR ( high temperature gas cooled reactor) in Colrado where sprctre lives, at fort saint verain to be exact, thats the worlds only high temp  gas cooled reactor, folks up there are used to logging their daily exposure and playing jokes on us whenever they like,  just to scare us to death     L o L 

But don't you worry, i ain't seen hair grow on palm of no ones hand over there. 🤠

 

 

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5 hours ago, LittleWatchShop said:

@spectre6000, you are a trouble maker. Next thing you are gonna tell me is that 5G will not melt my brain or not turn me into an automaton.  I am on 5G now and fear that I ma

And yet... Here we are in the junk drawer, taking up server space six pages into a thread that no one will get past the second page of.

4 hours ago, Nucejoe said:

 There is a  HTGR ( high temperature gas cooled reactor) in Colrado where sprctre lives, at fort saint verain to be exact, thats the worlds only high temp  gas cooled reactor, folks up there are used to logging their daily exposure and playing jokes on us whenever they like,  just to scare us to death     L o L 

But don't you worry, i ain't seen hair grow on palm of no ones hand over there. 🤠

Had to look that up. Was decommissioned back in 1989, and is currently a natural gas power generation facility. I lived in the northeast corner of Longmont, nearly due west a few miles of that facility for a few years.

There's also Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons manufacturing location that's now just a grassy field and some foreboding signs. Lots of issues with leaks and spills over the years however long ago turns out. I used to live due west of that as well up in Coal Creek Canyon, and drove by one side or another every time I went anywhere. Fortunately in the instance here (for me and other mountain residents, not all the people in the suburbs down there), prevailing winds along the face of the mountains are almost always easterly, and quite strong. I was a few miles away and a few K' higher.

Most interesting thing about my current location is that the nearest "town" is the ghost town where Alferd "The Colorado Cannibal" Packer lived his final days. Also, Colorado's "oldest family nudist resort" is within walking distance. Never been. Heard.... things.

Funny full circling, when I first moved to Colorado a decade ago, there was a billboard advertising said nudist resort on my way into Boulder... Right in front of Rocky Flats! Had no idea where it was, and never gave it another thought until we bought our current house and learned that it was up the road.

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