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Radium watch worries


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Radiation (although a more serious situation) is a bit like lubrication in that there can be many opinions along a spectrum with no true right answer. On one hand there is no absolute "safe" level of radiation exposure, but on the other hand a risk/benefit analysis can be done so as not to simply turn our backs on anything involving radiation that has benefits for our lives. (Sorry if that came out preachy!)

In industry and medicine, when we need to work with radiation the guiding concept for exposure is "ALARA" which stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. The tools to accomplish this are Time, Distance and Shielding.  So for those that want to minimize their exposure to the (sometimes quite significant) radiation coming from old lumed hands and dials, those concepts can be used. Keeping it outside of your body is the first concern (there would then be zero distance) so masks, gloves, disposable plastic drapes, etc. are useful as mentioned in posts above.  Keeping things damp can minimize contaminated dust generation, so if you are sanding or scraping off old lume, keep the tools and parts wet.  But even then, there is radiation being emanated from lume even in a closed watch or a sealed bag of hands, so precautions shouldn't stop there.

Doing things quickly, and maybe not using your "hottest" vintage watch as a daily wear item can leverage the time aspect. Thought of in this way, you can find other ways to avoid prolonged exposure, such as not storing your stash of old hands in the drawer right below the working surface you spend hours hovering over.  I do think it's a good idea for everyone working in this area to have one of the inexpensive radiation meters - you can't balance the risks if you don't know the relative magnitude of what you are working with.

There is another wrinkle - Radon (a radioactive gas) is generated as radium decays, and one study found that a collection of a dozen or so radioactive watches in a poorly ventilated area could lead to elevated radon levels, so how and where you store hot materials can also take that into consideration.

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The only radium watch I keep (1940's Universal Geneve) records about 0.9 micro Sv/h at the crystal, but this drops to background just a few inches away. Aware of the Radon danger, I keep it in an airtight plastic bag, and open it outside. (Not sure if the radon can get through plastic bags?)

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3 hours ago, Geotex said:

Radiation (although a more serious situation) is a bit like lubrication in that there can be many opinions along a spectrum with no true right answer. On one hand there is no absolute "safe" level of radiation exposure, but on the other hand a risk/benefit analysis can be done so as not to simply turn our backs on anything involving radiation that has benefits for our lives. (Sorry if that came out preachy!)

In industry and medicine, when we need to work with radiation the guiding concept for exposure is "ALARA" which stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. The tools to accomplish this are Time, Distance and Shielding.  So for those that want to minimize their exposure to the (sometimes quite significant) radiation coming from old lumed hands and dials, those concepts can be used. Keeping it outside of your body is the first concern (there would then be zero distance) so masks, gloves, disposable plastic drapes, etc. are useful as mentioned in posts above.  Keeping things damp can minimize contaminated dust generation, so if you are sanding or scraping off old lume, keep the tools and parts wet.  But even then, there is radiation being emanated from lume even in a closed watch or a sealed bag of hands, so precautions shouldn't stop there.

Doing things quickly, and maybe not using your "hottest" vintage watch as a daily wear item can leverage the time aspect. Thought of in this way, you can find other ways to avoid prolonged exposure, such as not storing your stash of old hands in the drawer right below the working surface you spend hours hovering over.  I do think it's a good idea for everyone working in this area to have one of the inexpensive radiation meters - you can't balance the risks if you don't know the relative magnitude of what you are working with.

There is another wrinkle - Radon (a radioactive gas) is generated as radium decays, and one study found that a collection of a dozen or so radioactive watches in a poorly ventilated area could lead to elevated radon levels, so how and where you store hot materials can also take that into consideration.

Really appreciated Geotex. Very sensible attitude 👍

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6 hours ago, mikepilk said:

radioactive materials

See if you can get Nucejoe To join in this conversation as he may have the knowledge you seek. I'm going by memory of something that he once said in the group.

5 hours ago, mikepilk said:

(Not sure if the radon can get through plastic bags?)

The probably depends on how well your plastic bag is sealed. 

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6 hours ago, mikepilk said:

The only radium watch I keep (1940's Universal Geneve) records about 0.9 micro Sv/h at the crystal, but this drops to background just a few inches away. Aware of the Radon danger, I keep it in an airtight plastic bag, and open it outside. (Not sure if the radon can get through plastic bags?)

Radon membranes and dpcs  have been used in modern house building and extensions for quite a few years now. Similar to visqueen sheet barriers with added polymer layers. Areas known to have a certain percentage of house contamination of ground radon gas the building regs require these barriers to be installed. Traditional vented sub floors once used didnt require these measures ( my much prefered method of house building also ) Apparently around 1000 deaths a year are estimated due to lung cancer caused by radon gas. Next time you're passing a new building site, drop by and ask if they have some radon membrane going spare, used to be green , i assume it still is.  Make a few small baggies for containing anything that has lume and seal with radon tape, when opening do it outside.  Over the top ? 🤔🤷‍♂️, does it matter if it is ? I know that my health is worth a lot more than any small amount of effort to preserve it. 

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  • 1 month later...

Updating on the situation:

Despite all of the information I basically suffered a month long anxiety attack. Since then I have sold both of my suspect radium watches to collectors on Ebay, vacuumed my room multiple times, cleaned my tweezers, and dusted my desk and watchmaking mat. Still I find me self rather uneasy to even sleep in my room, and to tell you the truth I don't even know if I was working with radium this entire time. The 6 watches I suspect are radium might have been tritium, although I highly doubt that at least not one of them was radium.

The radon gas aspect just has me a little queasy still. Could any lume have fallen off without my knowing? Maybe under my desk, or in a drawer? Emitting radon gas as I speak? Is it even enough to be dangerous? Or am I freaking out for absolutely no reason?

It just seems as though one side of the equation tells me to be afraid and the other says I have nothing to worry about. 

I am not trying to vent my anxieties to a watchmaking forum, I am just telling you guys my experience and for any hobbyist that has my similar worries to not feel alone. 

Not sure if any of you guys can elaborate on this or not. I just figured I should let you all, or any future viewer know how it was going.

P.S. I am genuinely sorry if I sound manic or insane haha

Edited by MattyG
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43 minutes ago, MattyG said:

month long anxiety attack

 a month of a panic attack you should get some professional help. It's not good for your health

48 minutes ago, MattyG said:

radon gas aspect just has me a little queasy still

Depending upon where you live I have a website. The website has everything You need to know about radon in other words you get a test kit or seek out a professional to help you out. I'm guessing anything they have to detect radon would probably find the radium.

https://www.epa.gov/radon

Then what you really need to do is purchase yourself a really sensitive Geiger counter. This way can check all the places that you're worried about and for the future you can check any of the watches You might be considering purchasing conceivably if it's sensitive enough you might not even have to open up your eBay packaging could just send it back.

 

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3 hours ago, MattyG said:

Or am I freaking out for absolutely no reason?

There is nothing to worry about. If you did all that cleaning there is probably no radium left. Even if some did fall off somewhere you didn't get to, the amount of radon gas it would produce would almost certainly be negligible.

If it would put your mind at ease, you could get one of those radon gas test kits. However, with the small amounts of radium you were dealing with, I really don't think it is necessary.

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10 hours ago, MarcusD said:

There is nothing to worry about. If you did all that cleaning there is probably no radium left. Even if some did fall off somewhere you didn't get to, the amount of radon gas it would produce would almost certainly be negligible.

This is kind of what I was hoping to hear. 

Thanks, it's just hard not to be at least a little panicked when half of the crowed says I've sealed my coffin and the other half says I am okay. 

On this forum I saw a picture of a dude holding a watch movement with the dial attached out of its case and the dial had that old school (defiantly radium) numbered indices. He even flipped the movement around so the dial was touching his skin!  This guy acted like it was no problem. This was extremely confusing for me to see as we had this entire conversation above.  

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I suppose, my advice would be to get rid of it if it causes so much stress.

There are so many things, alar, glyphosate, high-fructose corn syrup, mold, black mold, asbestos, FR4 dust, scorpions, COVID, Zika, vaccines, lead, tobacco, BPH, everything known to cause cancer in California, falling airplane parts...on and on.  Worry about all these, and then some dude T-bones you at a signal light and you are done.

My anecdotal evidence not to worry (which I have repeated around here multiple times), my Dad got to work at 7am, worked until 5pm in the Little Watch shop from 1947 to 1980.  A small building perhaps 600 sq ft.  He made it to 93.  My Mom worked there at least once a week.  She made it to 98.  Both smoked.  Neither died from cancer.

Finally, stay the hell out of California because everything is known to cause cancer in that state.  Must be the faults.

Edited by LittleWatchShop
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We live in a radioactive world. It is all around you. Holding a dial against your skin will not give you a radiation burn. It won’t send you into the hospital.


A single CT scan will give you a dose of 10-30 mSV.
Just eating a banana will expose you to 0.1 uSV.

The typical US resident receives 3 mSv a year from natural background radiation. In places like Kerala in India, they receive a natural background dose of 30 mSV a year (half from Radon and half from gamma emissions). There are no observed health effects in the population. 

One study estimated a dose from wearing a wristwatch with a 1 uCi radium dial worn 16 hours a day as 14 mSv a year.

Smoking 20 cigarettes a day gives you a dose of 53 mSV.

Edited by JohnFrum
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I have calmed down a bit since making that rather antsy post. 

I understand all of what you guys are saying, and I'm sorry if my ramblings made it seem like I wasn't taking any of what you guys are saying. I just have little spurs like that. I guess recently it's been worse. After hearing what @LittleWatchShop, @JohnFrumand @MarcusDsaid I feel a bit better. The main reason I was so terribly scared was because of the radon decay and the fact that I watchmaking from my desk in my bedroom. (I clean the watches in a better, more ventilated room by the way.) 

I think I am finally understanding this all. and after a short break I will continue learning to watchmake with all of this in mind. We can only learn

Hoping this thread is seen by others whom may have had the same thoughts as me. 

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Based on all the steps you have described, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your work space should be posing no more radiation risk than the natural background exposure that was there before you brought in any watches.

I can verify my radiation meter function by taking a reading from the surface of our granite countertop in the kitchen, because that natural stone will register 20-30 counts per minute anytime I want to check, which is much higher than a reading taken from my repair bench after I've spent some time working with known "hot" watches in a cautious manner. 

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