Radium

Discussion in 'General Clock Discussions' started by RJSoftware, Apr 18, 2008.

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  1. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    The more I think about it. The worse it gets.

    I find now, that the old west clock alarms and others have radium.

    I thought this issue was restricted to military watches and there was some movement (after Radium girls) to recall those watches.

    Now think about this.

    What is the most common place to work on your clocks and/or watches?

    It's the kitchen table.

    Reading a thread that is currently in watch catagory. I see someone won a bunch of watch parts from ebay.

    After recieving them, he and his son (who was doing some study) borrow gieger counter from college. Long story short he finds bottom of bag with radium dust.

    Now, when I think about some of the things I have done, maybe some of the old alarm clocks (Westclock baby ben and others) are also radium dial.

    I did have the common sense to vaccume and wipe down the table. Not even sure why I did. I did not take the radium seriously. Now after reading up. This I find is no joke.

    What about future generations that might do repairs on these items?

    Is it our duty to dispose of these clocks/watches? I suppose the older these get the more apt the radium is to fall of the dial and the hands.

    How bout accidents? Some younger relative.

    Doesn't sound cool does it..?

    Is there a way to clean these up safe? Or should they just be destroyed?

    RJ
     
  2. leeinv66

    leeinv66 Super Moderator
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    Do you glow in the dark RJ? I know I don't and I grew up with Radium clocks and watches. Moreover, I have repaired hundreds of them over the years. Unless you are going to eat the stuff or lick your brush when you apply it (like the Radium girls did), it isn't going to cause you any problems in small amounts. If you really want to worry about something, the next time you are sitting in traffic, think about all the crap you are breathing in from those exhaust fumes. Now that is scary:eek: Just my two cents worth!
     
  3. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    See, the thing is, if something lays arround in your house at the point of where you eat/drink etc... Plus how responsible are we being for not taking care of the situation for future generations.

    I'm surprized that ebay allows these items to be sold.

    RJ
     
  4. burnz

    burnz Inactive User

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    Of corse they had Radium--that's how you could see what time it was in the middle of the night without turning on the light. Or check your watch on a night excursion of whatever type.

    This topic has been beaten-- stomped--hashed and rehashed.

    If handled with care there is no reason for them to be destroyed.
    They have some decay factors over the years and the watch crystal/case or the clock glass/crystal/case also lessens the harmful factors in one's everyday life.

    When they must be handled--do so with care and use a thourough hand washing exercise after.

    As I said in the watch thread you referred to---don't lick them---sniff them--or otherwise mis-handle them and they will not cause serious problems.

    As I also replied in the same thread---you would be surprised just what in your home and/or environment---will set a geiger counter off.

    In the Radium girls story--they wet the tip of their brush in their mouth/lips with fresh radium paint on the brush.
    ****That is a whole different barrel of apples!****

    I certainly do not think ebay-antique sstores or flea markets are putting the world at risk.


    [edit=3818=1208521493][/edit]
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  5. JTD

    JTD Registered User
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    Thank you Peter and Burnz. Three cheers for common sense!

    JTD
     
  6. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Yeah I suppose.

    It's just that the stuff remains so potentially hazardous for such a long long period of time.

    I can see some guy in distant future taking a stab at repairing one of these on his kitchen table. Does he know the hazard? Maybe he has no clue. ebay certainly has no awareness of them.

    Given a few decades more, eventually the dials will flake. Probably by then all sorts of radium dust will spill out everywhere. Not to forget about the airpborne particles.

    Not to mention all the dust that would flake off from repair actions. Cracking, spliting, little microscopic pieces flying everywhere.

    Maybe he missed cleaning up some of the dust (considering he thinks it's just a normal dial) and next thing you know the kid has it in his sandwich.

    See, this is really not improbable. Infact, I would dare say highly likely that given the length of time something like this can occur.

    Then saving that special radium watch/clock might cost the life of one of your descendants.

    What if they found out some time after the death. Wonder what they would think of "Grandpa" and his precious clocks/watches.

    This is like the guy who keeps poisonous pet snakes at his house for entertainment. One day he comes home finds one of his kids dead on the floor.

    "I guess he just couldn't see it coming".

    I think that the radium was really a super super bad idea. Perhaps doing horology a great dis-service.

    Sure other things may have radiation, but it's the dust that has tendency to get everywhere and just hang arround a long long time.

    The next step I'm going to take is to see if any of the hardware stores have radiation detection kits.

    Sorry if this subject has been done to death. But, I never realized the potential.

    Now I have to consider what to toss out. And how to destroy it.
    RJ
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  7. burnz

    burnz Inactive User

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    RJ,
    Make a list of what you are going to throw out. If I need something I will pay the postage and you can send it to me.

    There has been many watch/clock maker that lived to a nice ripe old age (I have know quite a few). I would say the vast majority died of natural causes. Never heard of a repairman death because he was lit up with radium.

    Of course the radium girls story is a complete different thing and very hazerdous from their own doing --albeit--they did not know any better at the time.

    I think it is time to stress the proper handling of older hands/etc. with radium and at the same time--disconnect the panic button!
     
  8. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    If I find they are hazardous, then they are trash. I could care less if they have any value at all...!

    Health first. Above all else.

    RJ
     
  9. burnz

    burnz Inactive User

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    RJ,
    Correct me if Iam wrong.
    As I recall--you are not into watches that much.
    You may have an older alarm clock or two.

    Other than that--it seems the type clocks you are interested in would not be a problem. I wouldn't think you would have that much radium painted parts/hands around.

    As apoint of interest--you say value or not--they are trash. If you are going to be that hard core about it--then you cannot simply throw them in the trash. You will need to contact the proper agency and follow their guidelines for disposal.

    Not that that agency will necessarily know that much about watch and clock hands.

    Ahhhh--the plot thickens.
    [edit=3818=1208542978][/edit]
     
  10. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Hey RJ, I keep my radium dials and hands with my mercury-filled pendulums.

    The "special" number of this post for me just beckoned this kind of response. :devil:
    [edit=3404=1208543707][/edit]
     

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  11. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Good point.

    RJ
     
  12. clocks4u

    clocks4u Registered User
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    RJ...I was an Level II industrial radiographger for 25 years, so I think I know a little bit about the subject. You probably get more radiation exposure in one week in sunny California, than you would in a lifetime of working on radium dialed alarm clocks.

    The women who worked on these things handled massive amounts on a daily basis. It sure didn't help when they painted their teeth and faces. I once took an alarm with a radium dial to work. I put a survey meter close to the face and couldn't even get a reading more than a few inches back.

    If it still concerns you, wear gloves and lay the dial on paper towles. When you though, just toss them out.

    Chris
     
  13. bangster

    bangster Super Moderator
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    Arjay, if you start calling the hazmat people to deal with your clock dials, you will be categorized as a Kook. The level of radiation you'll get from a radium-painted dial is less than you get from an ordinary day of walking around. The Radium Girls ate the stuff, in significant quantities, every working day. Don't eat your clocks, and you'll be okay.

    bangster
     
  14. clocks4u

    clocks4u Registered User
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    LOL....:clap:
     
  15. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Or worse...they might show up with a bulldozer and a back-hoe. :clap: Then, feeling like a kook won't be the worst of the feelings, if any of those crazy stories of overreaction about the mercury in broken thermometers is accurate.:|
    [edit=3404=1208555214][/edit]
     
  16. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Strange attitudes.

    You know the thing about cancer is that it only take one cell to be exposed to that kind of element.

    The blindness to what I am speaking of is like the guy who takes chances with prostitutes.

    You might think a condum is safe just like wiping the table down.

    But it only takes that one little cell to get infected.

    That one little particle that landed on the very edge of the table that you didn't wipe. That one little particle that clinged to the bottom of your kids spoon. The one that got stuck in your kids digestive track or kidney and developed into a tumor. The tumor that went undiagnosed for years and matastisized and killed your kid.

    Ive spent years raising my 3 daughters in as healthy an environment as I could do. Finding this out is disturbing.

    RJ
     
  17. leeinv66

    leeinv66 Super Moderator
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    RJ, I understand your concerns, especially how things will affect your children. But in this case, there are so many more things out there that are much worse than the tiny amount of Radium exposure we are talking about here. Besides, as much as we parents would like to, we can’t protect our kids from everything. And in fact, it can be argued that when we try to wrap them in cotton wool, it has a negative impact on their personal development. Just my thoughts RJ.

    P.S
    If you ask a question and all the answers you receive say the same thing, wouldn’t you call the prevailing attitude a “common” rather than a “strange” one?
     
  18. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    I think it's easier just to trash the radiated parts and be done with it..!

    No worries about "what ifs" "coulda woulda shoulda" "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"...

    They are just simply not worth it!

    It was a bad idea, cost the lifes of some nice ladies... and like a snake that still lives we should just chop it's head off.

    Kill them damb things. Kill them before you wind up with regrets. Do it in honour of those women who died from it, even though the coorperation scientist knew.

    What bastards, the liars, even tried to smoke screen the issue. Here it is still lingering potential.

    Think of the suffering. The husbands and children who watch them die.

    What would I want to keep something like that alive for? No dice.

    Chop them up with a shovel in a deep hole far out in the woods. Poor acid on them, then cover with dirt.

    They don't deserve to live in horological history.

    RJ
     
  19. harold bain

    harold bain Forums Administrator
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    RJ, why would you want to kill a snake? They have no radium.
    If you feel uncomfortable having these clocks in YOUR house, take them back to the goodwill store, and let someone else have them.
     
  20. bangster

    bangster Super Moderator
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    Arjay, you are completely out of your tree. Your notion that a tiny particle of radium, ingested, can lead to cancer, is sheer fantasy. What is known is that long-term exposure to significant amounts of radium CAN lead to bone cancer. It does that by replacing the calcium in the bones. Radium doesn't grow or increase in size or amount. If you inhale or swallow a minute particle, what you have is a minute particle, NOT a growing menace. There are absolutely no known cases of anybody getting sick from being near a radium-dial clock. The radiation emanating from the paint is insignificant. Just being near it is a zero hazard.

    The "Radium Girls" didn't get sick from being around radium paint. They got sick from dipping their brushes in it and then licking the brush...over and over, hundreds of times a day, day in and day out. They ATE a LOT of radium. And it made them sick.

    The world is full of substances...not just radium...that can be lethal in large doses, but are otherwise harmless.

    If you are REALLY worried about your kids getting radiation poisoning, then instead of pitching a hissy-fit about radium-dial clocks, you should get your house tested for radon. The thing about radon is that it's a gas. And it tends to be all over the place... it emanates out of the soil. And when it's around, it gets INHALED into the system. And if you, unkowningly, inhale a lot of it over an extended period, there's a very good chance it will make you sick.

    Right now you're not in a frame of mind to listen to any of this. Those who give you the facts are just "bastards, liars, smoke-screeners" committed to the killing of innocents.

    So, the thing you should do is drop off your offending clocks at the local hazardous-waste disposal facility, and be satisfied that you have done your duty to humanity. It won't make you or your household a damn bit safer, but it will make you feel better. Then maybe you'll get around to doing the radon test...something that actually CAN matter.

    bangster
     
  21. Ansomnia

    Ansomnia Registered User

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    I understand and agree with what RJ feels and believes. He is simply using analogies to deacribe his arguments.

    I worked a number of years with Cr-51 and I-131, potentially deadly radioactive materials that were very useful in my medical research. My brother is also in medical research and he also use radioactive P-32 aside from I-131. We also worked with tritium or 3H which is a "less dangerous" type of alpha emitter that has also been used on luminous watch dials. There are several different Radium isotopes of varying levels of hazard. It is difficult to determine how valid someone's claims about radium is unless they are sure about the purity of the radium he is referring to and which isotope it is. And can someone be certain if a dial has triium vs. radium? Probably, but your research has to be very good.

    Bang, I also disagree with what you said about RJ's concern about ingested radium. The radioactivity you refer to is gamma radiation, which is the high energy photonic irradiation we associate with atomic bomb explosions and x-rays. But radium is also an alpha emitter. Alpha emissions are high energy protons that collide with nearby molecules to pose a health hazard, like cancer. See Alpha Emitters and search on "cancer".

    So I would agree with RJ that the best approach is to treat it as a potentially lethal hazard and deal with it as such, in the manner that is clearly prescribed by our health authorities. While you may doubt the sincerity of our authorities I would say none of us has the expertise or experience that can be reasonably used to discredit the official warnings.

    BTW, radium is an alpha and a gamma emitter. If you plan to use a Geiger counter, make sure the device can measure alpha particles, most older counters do not measure alpha emissions. Alpha emitters are dangerous when ingested.

    Here are some useful Internet sources on radium:I think people should read the material and respond in a way they feel is responsible. In this regard, I think RJ simply loves his children and places that above his love of horology. We should not be questioning his decision or making him feel bad about it.


    Michael
     
  22. Tony Ambruso

    Tony Ambruso Registered User

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    Michael, very cogent presentation. Thanks for the references, too.
     
  23. clocks4u

    clocks4u Registered User
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    IMOP....it's being a little paranoid. You get more radiation in a week on the beach in sunny Mexico, than you would in a lifetime of cleaning old alarm clocks. Everything you do on a daily basis has risks. Some more than others. Just use common sense here....:?|.
     
  24. Les harland

    Les harland Registered User

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    Is there any way to remove the radium from the hands and dials and dispose of it safely?
     
  25. Ansomnia

    Ansomnia Registered User

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    Clocks4u, again I believe you are only referring to gamma radiation exposure.

    The survey (Victoreen?) meter you used years ago probably had a metal or glass cover over the probe which would have blocked all of the alpha particles. Look up survey and civil defense meters and I think you'll find they only detect gamma radiation. As a radiographer you would only be using gamma emissions to make radiographs because alpha particles cannot be used to take pictures. So your survey meter at work would probably have been a gamma counter. You can buy those survey meters for peanuts on eBay but they probably only measure gamma radiation.

    Alpha radiation and not gamma radiation is the source of hazard with inhaled or ingested alpha-emitting material.


    Michael
     
  26. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Michael;

    Thank you for understanding my concearn.

    I hope the old meter can still be useful to determine if one has any radium clock/watch parts, true? At least that would be a good start.

    Bang;

    The liar, bastard comment was not aimed at you or any of the members here, it was in refference to the lab scientist who made the radium that eventually killed those women.

    You know I enjoy reading your post, especially such emotionalismn you put into it. "Hissy-fit"... LOL..!

    Too-chay mm-wa brother horologist Bangster. Too-chay the little mouse say. (Tom & Jerry refference).

    Everyone:

    See, too much doubt about this. And when in doubt, toss em out.

    RJ
     
  27. Kevin W.

    Kevin W. Registered User

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    I work at the Veritas Tools machine shop.
    Nepean, Ontario, Canada
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    Anybody have some radium parts or clocks or watches that are a hazard to you or others?
    I will pay postage too, no problem.
    It is something similar like i heard on the news a while back.They said candle smoke and lamp smoke was bad to breathe in.
    Then why did my grand dad and his dad and his dad before them all die in the ir 80,s.They all used oil and wood to heat and light their homes.
    Way too much is being made of this radium thing, just use common sense and you will be fine. :thumb:
     
  28. burnz

    burnz Inactive User

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    The following ( beginning with figure 1)** is an excerpt from the NAWCC article and says what most of us has been saying. Numbers 1-3 below are my words!

    1. Not significant in their cases and under glass crystals.

    2 .Figure 1 is in refence to a car clock that was pictured. In figure 1 below the author states---Dont breath the dust--wash hands carefully after handling the dial or hands.

    3. As most of us have been saying---"USE COMMON SENSE"





    From the NAWCC article as follows:

    **Figure 1, This nice old automobile clock has the luminous paint missing from one of the hands. Where did these deadly crumbs go? Anyone working with these old timepieces should be particularly careful of any dust and dirt inside the case. Careful hygiene is amust. Don't breathe the dust. Wash hands carefully after handling the dial or hands.


    Incidentally, the scientific information about radiation sickness that was painfully accumulated in New Jersey in the 1920s provided about all that was known at the time, and thus became the database for the subsequent investigations 25 years later at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The horological significance of all of this is: Radium (the Ra-226 isotope) has a “half-life” of 1,620 years. This means that after 1,620 years, it still will be half active!

    Tens of thousands of these luminous dial watches and clocks are still around. In their cases, and under the glass crystals, the radiation hazard is not significant. However, the luminous paint tends to crumble with age.




    Veritas--I agree and will take all of the dials,hands, and clocks any one would like to send me.

    [edit=3818=1208630735][/edit]
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  29. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Michael;

    Thank you for understanding my concearn.

    I hope the old meter can still be useful to determine if one has any radium clock/watch parts, true? At least that would be a good start.

    Bang;

    The liar, bastard comment was not aimed at you or any of the members here, it was in refference to the lab scientist who made the radium that eventually killed those women.

    You know I enjoy reading your post, especially such emotionalismn you put into it. "Hissy-fit"... LOL..!

    Too-chay mm-wa brother horologist Bangster. Too-chay the little mouse say. (Tom & Jerry refference).

    Everyone:

    See, too much doubt about this. And when in doubt, toss em out.

    RJ
     
  30. Ansomnia

    Ansomnia Registered User

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    RJ, I'm not an expert on the matter but the gamma counter will do what is designed to do - pick up gamma radiation. Make sure it is very sensitive because alpha emitters may only have very low gamma emissions. But I am not sure if background will cause false positives.

    If the alpha emitter emits enough gamma to be detected by the gamma counter, the device will tell you if there is possible contamination but can't tell you how much alpha contamination there is or if in fact there is any alpha or non-gamma emitters in the contamination because gamma counters, as I said, only do what they are designed to do.

    Gotta run.


    Michael
     
  31. clocks4u

    clocks4u Registered User
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    I stand by what I said....I'm not arguing that "over exposure" to radium, or another radiation source shouldn't be avoided. The risks are minimal for a person that repairs these type of clocks. Use common sense when doing so.

    I get my teeth x-rayed once a year. There's a risk everytime I do so, but the benefits out weigh that risk.

    Anyone out there that has followed this thread (including RJ) and is still concerned, please pack and ship me all your old tin can alarms. I will pick up all packing and shipping charges....:clap:
    [edit=80=1208636291][/edit]
     
  32. Kevin W.

    Kevin W. Registered User

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    I work at the Veritas Tools machine shop.
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    RJ i know where you are comming from and it is a good thing.You have children and dont want anything to happen to them.Yes be careful and if in doubt get rid of it or ask for help.
    I truly think that every day i go to work i ingest enough metal and oil and other airborne things that are not healthy to me.Sitting near a glow in the dark watch hand or dial is less of a hazard.
    I think the big problem with the radium girls is ignorance.They used radiation to cure people but not fully realized the hazards of ingesting in every day would acumulate in your body and kill you.On the other hand perhaps someone said this is not a good practice to put the paint brush in your mouth with the radium paint on it.Their warnings were most likely ignored and people got ill because sometimes the dollar means everything and not people,s health.
    I dont know how many of the women died but i believe quite a few did.
    Radiation poisoning of any kind cant be a quick death.
    I think everyone here agrees about using safety and common sense when working with hands or dials.
    :%
     
  33. bangster

    bangster Super Moderator
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    Hey Michael; I quote from the Alpha Emitters article you cite:

    "Being relatively heavy and positively charged, alpha particles tend to have a very short mean free path, and quickly lose kinetic energy within a short distance of their source. This results in several MeV being deposited in a relatively small volume of material. This increases the chance of cellular damage in cases of internal contamination. In general, external alpha radiation is not harmful since alpha particles are effectively shielded by a few centimeters of air, a piece of paper, or the thin layer of dead skin cells. Even touching an alpha source is usually not harmful, though many alpha sources also are accompanied by beta-emitting radiodaughters, and alpha emission is also accompanied by gamma photon emission. If substances emitting alpha particles are ingested, inhaled, injected or introduced through the skin, then it could result in a measurable dose"

    I conclude (from this) that the Alpha radiation from your clock dial carries no significant health hazard, as long as you're not eating, breathing, or injecting its paint. Other studies, including ones you cite, indicate that the amount of radiation and the duration of exposure are relevant to determining toxicity. The Canadian document is the only one that says nothing about these variables, implying that any radiation from any amount of radium, however small, constitutes a health threat. ("Don't eat, drink, or smoke in a room where there is a radioluminescent device.") I haven't found that level of alarmism anywhere else. Maybe the Canadians know something that nobody else does. Or maybe they prefer to "err on the side of caution." Sort of like the California regulators who have concluded that, if you feed a steady diet of nothing but X to a rat, for a long time, and the rat catches cancer, then a single molecule of X is enough to give YOU cancer.

    But I won't argue any more. The Canadians confirm Arjay's darkest fears, and that'll be that, so far as he's concerned.

    bangster
     
  34. bangster

    bangster Super Moderator
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    A footnote:
    Painting over the numerals & hands with clear nail polish won't block them from emitting radiation, but it WILL serve to prevent the radium paint from flaking off. Then, if you're of a mind to, you can repaint them with modern-day non-radium glow-in-the-dark paint.
     
  35. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    The thing about dust. Is that dust gets everywhere. Sorta like Murphies law. If anything can go wrong it usually does.

    Dust, a slight draft sends particles who knows where. Open a small tin of watch hands might send a particle drifting in air.

    It's small so it clings to nearly anything undetected.

    I think about that little microscopic particle just like a miniture microwave oven. Only running all the time with the door wide open.

    You know how it is. We humans, we rub our eyes, pick our noses, scratch ourselves nearly all the time.

    So for imagination sake let's say this one particle clung to your finger. Your eye got itchy and you rubbed the particle into the corner of your eye.

    How long does that little particle sit there and nuke the neighboring cells?

    When you wonder outside in the California/Mexico/Where-ever sunshine, your body does this magnificant thing, it tells you when your getting too hot.

    Your common sense tells you to get into the shade because of the heat.

    But that little dust particle is a different story. Will a neighboring nerve cell signal to you that something is burning. Depends I think.

    Maybe the one cell that the dust got embedded into got fried allong with the nerve and guess what, no signal to the nervous system. No signal to tell you something is wrong.

    That little nuclear power plant just established residency in the surface of your eye. Slowly cooking neighboring cells undetected. Some cells die like good soldiers. Others hang on. Some of those dna get wigged out.

    How long does it take for a cell to be damaged enough to develope cancer. Who knows? But who want's to gamble that big.

    Many health officials believe cancer is highly associated with inflamation/heat. To me that makes dang good sense. What cells do not get toasted survive BUT their dna altered, and there you have cancer.

    Cancer is actually the developement of living cell's that have an unwillingness to die.

    It's about the erasure of celluar programming.

    The cell splits and a tumor developes. Later matasticizes.

    RJ
     
  36. Kevin W.

    Kevin W. Registered User

    Apr 11, 2002
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    RJ here is some interesting reading.I apologize for the length of this but i think it will educate and tell us a fair bit more about this topic.

    [I'm not a radiation expert. What I write here is based on my reading and a lot of poking around on the web, plus some common sense. I shall provide references where available.]

    I now own several radium dial watches (a few of which surprised me, I recently checked all my wristwatches with a Geiger counter and found a few “sleepers”). Only one radium-dial pocketwatch though, an art-deco Waltham from 1944.

    I've been doing some research into how I can gauge the "reasonable risk" I'm taking by wearing them, and as always I felt my opinions were worth sharing.

    Another good place to start is the Radioluminescent Paint article at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities website. It provides more in-depth information on the history and origins of radium paint along with a brief discussion of tritium watches. There are also some estimated exposure doses based on studies done at the National Center for Radiological Health; their estimates seem to roughly correspond with the measurements I've made of my own watches.

    I should point out right away that expert opinions on this subject vary widely. Some would laugh at the idea of a radium dial watch representing any real danger, while others would cringe at the thought of wearing one even for a few hours. Radiation risks are a very polarized issue right now; I'm trying very hard to present a reasonably balanced view.

    Short summary
    There's a lot of stuff here, so here's the thirty-second summary for those unwilling to read the whole article. (Though you really should!)

    It can be difficult to visually identify a radium dial watch. Most of them have obviously thick painted numbers and crystallized paint, but this is not always true. The most definitive test is with a Geiger counter or similar radiation measuring device.
    If the watch was made after 1968, it almost certainly is not radium.
    Watches made before 1968 which are still ‘self-illuminating’ (still emit a glow in a dark room after being left in a closed drawer for a day or two) are almost certainly radium. The other radioactive substances commonly used in watch dials have very short half-lives and/or high evaporation rates, and in watches made before 1968 will have mostly converted into a non-radioactive element.
    Watches made between 1968-1985 which are still self-illuminating are in a “gray area;” it's anyone's guess what they used in the paint. Most non-radium substances used in radioluminescent paint have short half-lives (Promethium-147: 2.6 years, Tritium: ~12.5 years) and after more than twenty years will glow very dimly, if at all.

    As long as the watch is left intact, there's very little danger from wearing most radium dial watches. The sole concern is potential cancer risks from very long-term exposure, and this increased risk would be localized to the area where the watch is being worn.
    Because of the small amounts of radiation involved, it is impossible to give an accurate “increased cancer risk” value. It is possible to place an upper limit on this value; but it may be zero, and there is significant evidence that exposures to low doses of radiation are good for you.
    Refinishing radium watches is best left to people with specific training in dealing with radioactive substances and the facilities for properly disposing of the paint. While the risk from refinishing one watch is quite small, it's still more of a danger than just wearing the watch as-is.
    Refinishing multiple radium dial watches definitely is a concern, especially if done without proper facilities.
    Watches which use tritium are safe, and present no measurable cancer risk.
    Basic facts about radium
    Radium is a naturally-occurring element which produces alpha, beta and gamma radiation, and was one of the first radioactive elements discovered. Radium-226 (the major isotope of radium, and the one primarily occurring in watches) has a half-life of about 1600 years, so the radium in a watch is just about as strong as it was when it was originally painted. It was used in "glow-in-the-dark" paint for many years in the early part of the 20th century, until about 1960 or so.

    While radium will glow on its own, for use in paint it's mixed with a scintillating phosphor compound such as zinc sulfide. This generates a far brighter glow and thus requires less radium. (Radium was extremely expensive at first, so anything that would lessen the amount needed was seen as a good thing. This is fortunate for other reasons as well.) Over a long period of time the zinc sulfide breaks down due to radiation exposure (humidity may also play a factor), which explains why most radium watches and clocks no longer glow (brightly) in the dark.

    (A "scintillating phosphor" is a compound which emits visible light when exposed to radiation. The old-fashioned CRTs used in TV sets and computer monitors use these phosphors to emit visible light when exposed to a scanning X-ray beam.)

    Ingested radium was responsible for the deaths of many dial painters (people who painted the dials on watches and clocks) during the 1920s and 30s. These dial painters were using their lips and tongues to "point" the brushes they were using to paint the dials, and thus repeatedly swallowed a small amount of the radioactive paint. Some of them also deliberately painted their teeth and used it in other ways on their body.

    Ingested radium is extremely dangerous, as elemental radium behaves much like calcium and thus is a "bone seeker"; it goes straight into the bones, and from there causes bone cancer. Many of the painters suffered from massive jaw cancers, as the radium tended to go into the teeth and jaw areas. Bone sarcomas were quite common, and the bones also became very brittle over time. Others died due to lung tumors related to inhaling large quantities of dust containing radium particles and radon gas.

    Before you start getting all panicky about how your watch is dangerous because these people died, remember that you won't be eating or breathing the radium—you'll just be wearing the watch. Very different.

    Also keep in mind that the amounts ingested/inhaled by the watch painters were huge, relatively speaking. According to at least one source I've seen ingesting the same amount of arsenic would've killed them, and arsenic is one of the less dangerous poisonous elements. Even if you scraped off and ate the paint from a single watch it probably wouldn't present any significant danger. (But I wouldn't want to try it.)

    Another important point is that the paint is rarely “pure.” Most luminous paint manufacturers used multiple radioactive substances in ‘secret’ formulas. Mixtures of thorium and radium were pretty common. The radiation risks aren't appreciably different unless you're considering refinishing dials without proper protection.

    Theodore Gray's Periodic Table is a great source of information on radium (or any other element), and his site provides a number of links to other information sources. Highly recommended.

    A PDF file from the Argonne National Labs on radium. Much useful data, including some information on cancer risks from ingestion, inhalation and whole-body exposures. (Unfortunately, little of this applies to the issue of whether your watch is safe.)

    How can I tell if my watch has a radium dial?
    A good question for which there is no one simple answer.

    Note that few (if any) of these watches will glow brightly, but you may see portions of the hands or painted numerals glowing in a very dark room. The glow is from parts of the zinc sulfide that haven't quite stopped working.

    If the watch or clock was made before 1950 and has a "glow-in-the-dark" face it quite probably has a radium dial. There were other radioactive substances used but before 1950 this was uncommon. (Promethium-147 and tritium are the other somewhat common radioactive substances found in watch dials, but neither was substantially used before 1950.) Conversely, there were few radium watch dials made after 1960, and modern luminized watches use some other substance which has either low or no measurable radioactivity. (The last official date for radium watches in the US is 1968, but there was a marked decline in their production after 1955-1960 or so.)

    Radium paint typically has a unique appearance, a rather distinct tan or "gold" color. (Sometimes it's orange. The color mainly depends on the scintillating material used.) It frequently looks crystallized from the zinc sulfide. You may also see spotting or stains around the painted areas from migrated paint (this is most obvious on white faces). The paint on the numerals is usually quite thick and they're noticeably raised above the surface of the dial.

    Note that the paint almost always glows green, but is usually a tan color in daylight. But you can't go by the paint color to determine if it's a radium watch; the most straigthforward way to decide is to use a radiation detector (Geiger counter or equivalent), or if you know when the watch was made.

    The other easy test is to see if the watch glows on its own. (Keep it in a closed drawer for a day, then take it out in a dark room and see if it's glowing.) If so, and it was made before 1985, it's 99% certain to be radium. The other commonly-used substances have very short half-lives and will no longer be glowing on their own.

    Here's a photo of a radium dial watch:



    (click on the image for a larger version)

    It's not the greatest picture, but you can get a feel for how the numbers are raised above the rest of the dial and the typical radium paint color. Usually the painted areas on the hands are recessed and filled with paint, which is another clue indicating the watch has a luminized dial. Light numbers on a black background are common for early luminized dials (pre-1930); later dials can be either way.

    A Geiger counter will tell you very quickly if the watch is radioactive, and that's a good indicator of whether or not it has a radium dial. No radiation, no radium. Substantial radiation levels and made before 1960? It's almost certainly radium.

    If you don't have access to a Geiger counter but you have some Polaroid sheet film, you could try laying the watch on an unexposed sheet of the film for a day or two, then develop the sheet. If the watch is radioactive an image of the numerals will appear on the film, although if the radioactivity is weak it may take a much longer exposure. (The same thing will work with any photographic sheet film.)

    To get any sort of "risk estimate" on your watch, you'll really need to measure the amount of radiation being emitted from it with a Geiger counter or similar instrument. Anything else would just be a complete guess, but we can generally assume the radiation levels are low.

    Getting a handle on radiation and exposures
    I wish this stuff were simple, but it really isn't that complicated. There's a basic set of facts you need to know, and I've tried to summarize as much as I can. Hopefully it's not too summarized.

    Basic facts about ionizing radiation
    Radiation is basically a form of energy. (That's really all you need to know about how it is produced.)

    There are three major types of ionizing radiation: alpha rays, beta rays, and gamma rays. Radium emits all three types.

    Alpha rays are the least penetrating, as they'll bounce off of most solid substances including the glass dial on a watch, skin, clothing, etc. They're actually the most dangerous if actually absorbed by the body, as they're "highly ionizing"—they'll do a lot of cellular damage. The only way alphas present a significant problem is if they're absorbed directly into the body, through a cut or by being inhaled or ingested. (Alphas were a primary cause of the bone cancers in the dial painters.) For a radium watch the alpha particles are a very low risk, as the vast majority of them (99.99%) will be stopped by the glass and the remainder won't make it through the atmosphere. Only if the glass were broken and the paint inhaled or swallowed would alphas emitted by the radium paint represent any kind of health concern.

    Beta rays are more penetrating but are stopped by a few inches of air. They're less ionizing and thus do less cellular damage, but can still present a substantial risk. Most beta rays would be absorbed by the clothing or outer skin layers. They represent the majority of the radiation emitted by a radium dial watch.

    Gamma rays are highly penetrating, it takes about 1 inch of solid steel to absorb 50% of them. They're considered to be about as dangerous to the body as beta rays. Radium emits gamma rays but at a much lower rate than betas, and they represent a relatively small part of the radiation dose from radium watches (I believe the ratio of gammas to betas is about 1 to 12 but I can't find a confirmatory source for this). Most of the radiation dose received by the internal organs of the body would be from gamma rays.

    This HyperPhysics page on radioactivity has more detail on this subject, but it's fairly technical in nature.

    The EPA's Radiation Information Page. Intended to inform the consumer about radiation and its risks.

    Measuring and quantifying radiation risk
    Radiation exposures can be generally classified as "whole-body", meaning the entire body is exposed to the source, or "localized", meaning only a small area of the body is being exposed. Whole-body exposures are generally considered to be significiantly more dangerous, although that depends on exactly what areas of the body are being exposed.

    The duration of the exposure is also important. Exposures are classified as either "acute" (meaning that the exposure is short-term) or "long-term". High-level acute radiation exposures are far more dangerous than long-term exposures. The main risk from long-term low-level radiation exposures is cancer, while high-level acute exposures can result in severe illness and/or immediate death. A whole-body dose given in 5 seconds is far more dangerous than the same dose spread out evenly over the course of a year.

    The ORAU REAC/TS site has a useful discussion of the types of radiation exposures, although it's primarily intended for dealing with accident victims.

    Measuring radiation
    Radiation exposures are measured in various ways. (And the number of units keeps going up as time passes...) I'll focus mainly on rems, which is one measure of the "biological effectiveness" of the radiation. In other words, it tries to measure how much of a danger the radiation actually represents to living beings. Using rems avoids having to talk about alpha, beta and gamma particle counts separately but instead lumps them all together in one convenient unit. (The rem is a relatively old-fashioned unit. The new SI unit is a "sievert": one sievert is equivalent to 100 rem.)

    [For our purposes rads and rems are equivalent, as we're not concerned with alpha particles. And when making rough guesstimates, making an overestimate is better than underestimating in this case.]

    The Florida Power & Light website has an easy-to-understand page about measuring radiation.

    Steve Quayle's Radiation Measurement Conversion Tables has a brief discussion of the issues.

    University of Michigan Health Physics Web Site has a nice overview of radioactivity including a good discussion of measurement techniques, but it's somewhat technical. Another decent but overly technical site is at the Radford University Environmental Health and Safety website.

    Rems are kinda big...
    A rem is a rather large unit of radiation at the scales we're talking about (the LD50 for radiation in humans is an acute dose of 400 rems). To make things even simpler I'll use the mrem unit, which is the "millirem" or 1/1000th of a rem.

    A radiation source is usually measured as a "per hour" unit (mrem/hour), while total accumulation is given in mrems. For example, if you were exposed to a 5 mrem/hour source for three hours, you'd have accumulated 15 mrems.

    Accurate measurement of a "point source" is difficult as it depends on several factors. (Distance and surface area covered are the two primary issues.) Frequently you will see the specific measurement techniques used when a radiation measurement is given.

    Typical mrem exposures
    An average US citizen receives a whole-body dose of about 360 mrems per year from the surrounding environment (about .04mrem/hour). This comes from a variety of sources: cosmic radiation (radiation from outer space), naturally-occurring radioactive elements in the air, food and water, radiation in the surroundings, dental and medical X-Rays, and other sources such as radon gas. Living in Colorado can double your radiation exposure because of the high altitudes; you're protected less by the atmosphere there. Other areas may produce large amounts of radon gas, and this exposure could easily triple or quadruple your yearly dose. Airplane pilots who regularly fly at high altitudes receive a much higher yearly dose.

    A typical radium dial watch produces somewhere between 2 and 20 mrems per hour from its face, and less than 2 mrem/hour from the back. The steel in the watch back is very effective at stopping beta radiation, so the majority of the particles emitted from the back are gamma rays.

    A typical radium dial wristwatch generates somewhere between 1 and 5 mrem/hour from its face, while a typical radium dial pocketwatch measures anywhere from 5 to 40mrems from its face; the larger amounts of radiation correspond to the larger numbers and hands. These numbers vary so greatly because the amount of radium used in the paint wasn't standardized at all, as each paint manufacturer had their own "secret formula" in an attempt to maximize the lifetime of the paint.

    Typical radiation exposures from the University of New Hampshire's Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

    Typical Radiation Doses from the LBL. They claim 200 mrem/yr is average; I've seen both 200 and 360 mrem/yr bandied about with equal frequency.

    So... what's safe?
    The most challenging part is to figure out what represents a "safe" level of radiation exposure. Opinions vary wildly. If you believe the extremist anti-radiation people, no amount of radiation exposure is safe (and I guess most of them are living in a lead container buried 500 feet underground). If you believe this is correct, you have no business whatsoever wearing a radium dial watch and you can stop reading now. On the other paw, I'm sure there are people at the other extreme as well, and I may be one of them.

    The allowable whole-body limit for "occupational exposure" for radiation in the USA has been set at 5,000 mrems/year. [This figure is rather arbitrary, as it used to be 12,000 mrems/year (more specifically 3,000 mrems/quarter) and yet it's unclear that actual safety has increased at all.]

    These are all "whole body" exposures, meaning the entire body is being exposed to the radiation source. The limits for partial body exposure are much higher: 50,000 mrem/year is the current occupational limit for radiation exposure to the hand/wrist or other extremities, and 15,000 mrem/year is the limit to the eyes or head.

    [Just to point out that the occupational limits aren't some sort of magic numbers—if you get 50,001mrem to your hand in one year you aren't necessarily going to develop cancer, and 49,999mrem is no guarantee of safety. The limits are chosen as a compromise between necessary exposure and the desire to protect people's health as much as possible. It is believed that exposures below the occupational exposure limits represent "no measurable risk", but of course this is not entirely certain. The non-occupational exposure limits are extremely low, and wearing a radium watch for more than a few days almost certainly puts you over one or more of these limits.

    Another piece of the puzzle is that the limits are given as a yearly basis, but receiving 50,000mrem to the hand in the space of 5 seconds (an "acute" exposure) represents far more of a risk than receiving it to the hand steadily over the course of a year. The limits are assumed to be doses spread out fairly evenly over the course of a year.]

    Observable short-term physical effects are seen at a whole-body acute exposure level of 25,000 mrems. The really bad stuff (hair loss, nausea, etc.) requires an acute exposure of over 100,000 mrems. And as I mentioned earlier, the LD50 is approximately 400,000 mrems. But these are all acute exposures, meaning the total amount is delivered in a very short period of time. Long-term low-level exposure is far different.

    The radiation from a watch dial won't ever amount to any appreciable whole-body exposure, and cannot represent any sort of serious acute exposure. There's just not enough surface area there, the beta particles are stopped by a few inches of air (and would be completely absorbed by the local area of the body where the watch is worn anyway), and the gamma levels are low and represent only a small risk. Thus the primary exposure would be to the area where the watch is being worn, and it would be the 50,000 mrem/year limit that is the concern for most of us.

    Also remember that the radiation level from the back of a typical watch is quite low, 1/10th or less of that measured at its front. The vast majority of the exposure you'll get from a wristwatch will be from the back. (Exposure from the front of a pocketwatch is more of a concern.)

    So the risk from a radium watch would be tumors/cancer in the local area of the body where the watch is being worn, and that would be a very long-term issue. There's simply no real risk of any short-term effects from wearing one of these watches—you'd have to strap at least 3,000 of them to your body before there would be any appreciable short-term risk.

    My own two cents
    I believe that, in general, wristwatches are of very little concern. My Para measures at 2mrem/hour immediately at the glass decreasing to .15mrem/hour at 6 inches; I got a reading of about .15mrem/hour from its back. This .15mrem/hour reading represents the gamma portion of the radiation being emitted from the radium.

    .15mrem/hour does represent quite a substantial increase in my radiation exposure. If I were to wear it 16 hours/day every day my wrist could potentially be exposed to about 876mrem/year, and presumably my head and other body parts would receive measurable (but very low) levels of exposure because of radiation emitted from the face.

    (However, keep in mind that the above calculations are a very high worst-case estimate. The actual exposure would probably be closer to 8.76mrem/year, an inconsequential amount.)

    How does this affect my cancer risk? It's not clear at all, and there are no serious studies that can be used to quantify the risk at these low doses from a localized source. Some researchers believe that cancer risk increases linearly with exposure, while others believe there are "threshold doses" below which there would be absolutely no concern at all. There are sound theoretical, historical and statistical arguments for both positions.

    [To see the controversy first-hand, do a Google search for "radiation threshold dose" and observe the resulting flaming vitriol from both sides of the argument. "radiation hormesis" is another fun search term; these people believe that low-level radiation exposures are good for you, and they also have substantial scientific evidence backing up their arguments. So, you pays yer nickel and you gets yer choice.]

    I've chosen to reduce this risk by only wearing the watch for short periods of time (less than 10 hours a week). The worst-case estimated dose to my wrist would be less than 100mrem/year, barely noticeable compared to the whole-body dose of 360mrem/year I'm already receiving from the environment. It's actually much less additional exposure than that, but again, I'm using very skewed worst-case estimates.

    I wouldn't ever sleep with the watch on, as there's a risk of putting the glass right next to my head (although the hair, scalp and skullbone would absorb the vast majority of the radiation). I also keep these watches stored well away from my bed; while the atmosphere absorbs at least 80% of the radiation emitted from the watch, and at more than a foot the away the radiation would be so diffused that the increase wouldn't be measurable.

    (Paranoia? Yes, but it doesn't hurt.)

    The rest of my wristwatches are less than 2mrem/hour and I have absolutely no worries about wearing them.

    But...
    The Waltham pocketwatch measures at 25mrem/hr at its glass, decreasing to 2mrem/hr at six inches. The back of the watch measures at 2mrem/hr. These measurements represent at least 10 times the risk of the wristwatch... and actually it's more of a risk than that.

    (Those numbers are probably higher than average. My Waltham was made in 1943, and the watch dials at that time were painted by the same companies who were painting aircraft instrument dials. The paint used in instrument dials supposedly had a higher amount of radium than in the paint usually used for watches. I do know that this watch still has a rather substantial glow, and it can be easily read in a very dark room.)

    Pocketwatches are generally worn in a pocket on the vest or pants. If the watch is placed with the face inward it would easily represent a "real dose". If the watch is worn 8 hours/day facing inward, that would add up to a localized exposure of 73,000 mrem/year—well above the occupational exposure safety limit of 50,000 mrem/year.

    This is an extremely inaccurate guesstimate since clothing would absorb much of the beta emissions, but it's fair to say the potential exposure is at least one order of magnitude greater than that from my wristwatches from gamma rays alone. My internal organs would also be receiving a far higher (but still almost miniscule) radiation dose from the pocketwatch simply because of where it is being worn.

    Worse, my measurement technique is almost worthless as it's difficult to get accurate absolute readings from localized sources without a lot of complex measuring equipment and techniques. If you visited the Oak Ridge site I mentioned at the start of this page, you'll get some idea of what is involved in making a serious measurement of radiation dosages. But my measurements are probably decent relative estimates in terms of comparing the risks from the watches. This radiation rate isn't high enough to make me lose sleep at night, but it was sufficiently high to make me really think about the issue a bit.

    While I'm not particularly concerned, it makes some sense to limit the amount of time I wear this particular watch. I only wear it on average once or twice a month. But I have several pocketwatches and I like to rotate through them; I'd willingly wear it daily if I didn't have a convenient alternative.

    I also note that, according to my measurements, it easily exceeds the NRC limits on pocketwatches—I measure an activity well over 5 mrad/hour at 1cm from the front surface. Even if my Geiger counter were off by a factor of 10 (which is extremely unlikely as it measures within 10% for calibrated sources) it's still waaaaay too high.

    (Note that the NRC limits are for watches specifically containing promethium-147. Presumably they don't give limits for radium watches because they're no longer produced. The limits given for one element aren't directly applicable to another, unfortunately, so that doesn't really tell us very much.)

    Another way to lessen the risk is to use a hunter-style watch case. The metal would absorb most of the beta radiation, lowering the potential radiation exposure to 1/10th or less—and it would protect the fragile glass as well. I'm actually more concerned about the watch breaking in my pocket and releasing radium dust than long-term exposure to the watch.

    Common sense analysis
    There are no (or at least very, very few) known cases of cancer or tumors caused by wearing radium dial watches. In particular, cancer of the wrist is quite rare. These watches were worn in the millions for many years, and if there were any substantial problems we would've learned about them by now. Based on past history, the actual risk is low. (Despite our lowering the "safety limits" several times in the last 50 years, radiation hasn't suddenly become 1000× more dangerous than it used to be.)

    Still, there's at least one powerful argument for having radium watch dials refinished with something safer—or wearing a different kind of watch entirely. The radium paint isn't doing anything useful since the zinc sulfide is almost completely useless by now, and the paint merely represents an unnecessary radiation exposure and possible cancer risk. I'd be a bit more comfortable if it were serving some meaningful purpose, but it's utterly useless as-is and "re-activating" the paint doesn't appear to be an option.

    Unfortunately, getting a radium watch dial refinished is expensive and it's a challenge to find qualified people to do the work. Somebody's got to remove and dispose of the radium paint. This represents a health hazard to the person doing the work, and legal disposal of the paint is difficult—even in the small amounts involved with refinishing a watch.

    [Do not try to deal with this yourself. Radium taken into the body is quite dangerous, and if the paint is not properly handled would greatly increase your chances of getting bone or lung cancer over the rest of your lifetime. Once the radium becomes lodged in your body it will take many years before it leaves, and some of it will stay around forever. The risk may indeed be miniscule, but by refinishing it yourself you're increasing that risk by at least an order of magnitude over just wearing the watch—and it's a permanent increase, unlike wearing a watch where you have the option of not wearing it. You also probably don't have the facilities to properly dispose of the paint, and throwing it in the trash is a really sucky thing to do.]

    Repair work done on the watch is also a concern, since loose radium paint particles will almost certainly be floating around inside the watch, and there may also be a very slight (read: practically nonexistent) risk from radon gas being emitted from the dial. But there's no evidence that watch repair people were at more of a risk for cancer than the general population, and they had substantially more exposure to radium than the general public (including the fact that they repainted watch dials and hands with radium paint).

    Refinishing watch dials
    There's recently been a lot of interest in this issue, and I felt it was worth reiterating my position. This is just my personal opinion, not necessarily based on any expert knowledge or even any substantial facts.

    I sincerely believe that radium watch dials represent a very low long-term risk to anyone wearing them. There just isn't enough radiation to amount to any significant local or whole-body exposure; if anything, they probably prevent cancer rather than cause it. (I'm a believer in the radiation hormesis theory, but only because I believe in evolution, and I also believe that in the distant past living beings were exposed to much higher levels of radiation than today.)

    I thus believe that trying to refinish these dials is more dangerous than just leaving them alone. Believe me, I totally understand why someone might want them refinished. If nothing else, the migrated paint usually makes the dials looks pretty cruddy. And some people may be worried about the radiation exposure.

    But unless you have experience working with radioactive materials and have ready access to facilities for disposal of the paint, I see trying to do something with them to be significantly more hazardous than just leaving them as-is. Refinishing one dial represents a tiny, tiny risk... but it's far higher than the risks from wearing the watch as is.

    Like tritium, small amounts of radium outside the body represents a low/nonexistent danger. Radium taken internally makes for a much higher long-term risk from alpha and beta emissions. If the radium is in the watch, you know where it is and you can be comfortable that it's safe.

    If you're still determined to refinish a dial, please use a particulate mask. Ok, sure, big deal, we're talking about microcuries of a radioactive substance. Inhaling a few microcuries of radium or thorium really can be enough to induce a lung tumor if the particles stay in your lungs long enough. Particulate masks are cheap and may lessen your exposure.

    In conclusion
    I certainly can't say there is no danger from wearing a radium dial watch. I believe the risk is sufficiently small that I'm not going to worry about it, but others may believe differently and I won't argue against this. I've also taken steps to lessen this risk to what I believe is an extremely small level; you may conclude that wearing your watch 24 hours a day is an acceptable thing to do, and I wouldn't disagree.

    Unfortunately, the question of "threshold dose" versus "linear risk" with regard to cancer risks is at the heart of the issue, and there is currently a huge ongoing scientific debate over this. I cannot answer this for you; you will have to decide for yourself what's most comfortable. Clearly it is simplest and safest to not wear a radium dial watch instead of mulling over this issue, and many experts will give this very answer.

    The current attitude towards all forms of ionizing radiation is that exposures should always be kept As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). Wearing a radium watch with a non-glowing dial is very definitely against the spirit of this. That doesn't mean there's a serious danger, it just means most experts will see this as an undesirable risk, and most of the answers I've seen are "don't wear it".

    I believe wearing my watches is reasonably safe because of the low dosages involved, localized nature of the exposure, past history of radium watch use, plus the research that's been done over the years into the effects of radium and other related elements.

    I also try to limit my additional exposure to something less than what I receive from the surrounding environment (and keep in mind that this additional exposure is very localized while environmental exposure is whole-body). My own personal cancer risk is quite low—I eat right, exercise, lots of fiber, do all that good stuff. The additional radiation from my watches represents only a tiny increase in risk.

    To reiterate: I'm no expert and I certainly won't try to tell someone what's safe and what isn't. You need to decide for yourself what the acceptable risk level is. I'm just trying to provide enough facts and information sources to help you to make a decision.

    The main point behind trying to measure the radiation levels from my watches was to get a vague ballpark estimate of their danger. If it turned out to be .05mrem/hr I'd have absolutely no concern; if it were 5000mrem/hr I'd be greatly worried. They're somewhere in-between (and much closer to the first value than the second) which is what I initially suspected. I merely wanted some actual confirmation, and it's been easy enough to borrow a calibrated counter from a local university.

    Alternatives
    If you're merely looking for a self-luminescent watch that has significantly less radiation risk than a radium watch, one suggestion is to wear a tritium dial wristwatch. While they're somewhat difficult to find in the US, they're available at reasonable prices overseas. (In the form of military watches made for the US—anyone else see the irony here?)

    [Be aware that the only tritium-based luminescent watches that will still be self-illuminating are ones recently manufactured with GTLS tubes. Tritium paint evaporates quickly, and while the phosphor itself will still glow from exposure to UV sources the glow tends to fade after a few hours; the tritium in the old-style paint is almost all gone after 5-6 years. Also consider that few self-luminescent watches made today will be working 10-15 years from now. Even GTLS-based watches have a substantial tritium evaporation rate, and as tritium's half-life is only 12 years the watches will glow at 50% intensity at most after that time.]

    Tritium is a low-energy beta emitter, but has low/nonexistent gamma emissions and a relatively short halflife. Except for the evaporation problem, it is almost an ideal element for this application. Since low-energy betas are completely stopped by air, the watch glass and back, clothing, outermost layer of epidermis, etc., the sole danger is from direct absorption of tritium by the body.

    (Tritium was formerly restricted in the US because it is used as a booster in conventional nuclear weapons. It is also fairly expensive, even though it is a naturally-occurring element. Extracting it from natural water requires a complex and lengthy distillation process, and nowdays it's usually manufactured with the help of a nuclear reactor.)

    Wearing a typical modern tritium watch 24/7/365 would result in an exposure of less than 5 mrem/yr to the wrist, which would represent no real risk. (It'd be just about the same level of exposure as strapping a glass of water to your wrist.) The main whole-body exposure is from inhaling leached tritium from the watch, but this rate is very, very low—you could potentially receive 3-5× more radiation from one two-hour commercial airplane trip.

    [I have purchased 3 tritium watches from Anders at Gnomon Watches, and been quite pleased with the prices, service and the quality of the watches themselves. Everything has been at least as good as advertised. He's also a collector.

    I especially recommend the Hamilton MIL-W-46374B. It's not going to glow very brightly anymore, but it's a surprisingly handsome watch for something which was intended as a “GI Joe” wristwatch.]

    The DHS in Victoria, Australia has a nice summary of the “risks” involved in wearing plastic watches using GTLS tubes. They point out you would receive more radiation exposure from an airplane trip from Perth to Melbourne than wearing a plastic tritium watch for a year.

    Tritium Fact Sheet at the University of New Hampshire. The most important point is that the beta radiation emitted by tritium is incapable of penetrating the outermost layer of skin; it probably won't even make its way through the watch glass. Tritium is very safe—so long as it remains outside the body.

    Tritium availability
    I've never tried to buy tritium directly, but my university department used it for biomedical experiments in the late 80s and we didn't have any trouble obtaining significant amounts. We probably used at least 5× as much as is used in an entire year's worth of watches; watches use less tritium than you'd think.

    I mention this because there's been a persistent rumor that “tritium is no longer made” and this is used to explain why tritium isn't used very frequently in new watches. On the contrary, tritium production has actually increased over the last 10-15 years—in fact, the US is now manufacturing its own tritium for use in nuclear weapons (as of July 2005).

    Where does tritium come from? Nuclear reactors, mostly. CANDU has been meeting much of the world's tritium needs over the last decade and that's not likely to change anytime soon. (I believe CANDU's supply is being earmarked for ITER experiments, but there should still be plenty to go around.) Other potential sources include light-water reactors, atomic accelerators, and there's a glowtube-discharge-based approach which is fairly feasable though I never did find out if it was ever used commercially.

    Tritium is no longer used because, frankly, the export issues are horrid. The EU is taking its typical paranoid attitude and is discouraging the use of anything which smacks of radioactivity... never mind that tritium dials are about as harmless as it gets.

    More of a practical concern is that tritium just doesn't work that well, even in GTLS tubes. People don't like to buy watches using glowing dials with relatively short lifetimes, especially as having them refinished is a pain. And while in theory GTLS tubes can be replaced, in practice this has been a problem.

    Tritium alternatives
    The major disadvantage to tritium is the evaporation rate, and most tritium “paint” only lasts 7-8 years before it becomes too dim to be useful. While GTLS tubes last longer, they still become uselessly dim sooner than one would like.

    Because of the complex licensing and export issues with tritium, and the inherent limited lifetime of tritium paint and GTLS, most watchmakers today use SuperLuminova. It's a photoluminescent paint, and when “charged up” from a UV source (sunlight, fluorescent light) is able to emit a fairly bright glow up to six hours after exposure. And the lack of ionizing radiation makes it an easier sell in our paranoid culture. (Though the paint itself may be more toxic than tritium!)

    The drawback is, of course, that the light only lasts for a few hours and the watch must be exposed to a UV light source before use, while tritium and other radioluminescent paints will emit light 24 hours a day with no light exposure needed. I find my photoluminescent watches aren't sufficiently charged with normal wear to be usable at night (I always wear long-sleeve shirts) and I have to purposefully expose them to sunlight or a fluorescent light. Once they're charged they've very bright, but getting them charged is a problem.

    I haven't found any information on how long SuperLuminova will last before it needs replacing. Similar modern photoluminescent paints have a very long lifetime, however—15-20 years at least.

    I've used both SuperLuminova and Glow Inc.'s solvent-based paint to refinish dials which used the old zinc oxide paint.Both paints perform pretty similarly and are a huge improvement over the old paint.

    (Zinc oxide was used on photoluminescent dials for many years. It wore out quickly and didn't glow very brightly even when new, the new generation of paints have been a huge improvement. If your previous experience is with the older paint you'll be pleasantly surprised.)

    Glow Inc.'s paint seems to last a little longer, probably because it has a slightly brighter glow. But as SuperLuminova comes as a separate powder plus a binder which are mixed before use it's quite possible I didn't use sufficient powder for optimum results.

    I generally prefer the Glow Inc. paint because it comes in a wider variety of colors. (The blue is very striking, especially immediately after it's been charged up.) But its drawback is that it is very thick and somewhat gritty, which makes painting dial dots tricky and requires careful final finishing of the hands.

    Any paint particles which protrude from the hands must be removed, otherwise they would interfere with their movement. It would also be a poor choice for finishing very fine hands, it's just a little too goopy to work with. (It could be thinned, but you'd probably have to do multiple coats.)

    Sources
    DOE exposure guidelines.

    Operational health physics training book from the Argonne National Labs/DOE. It's a large (48MB) PDF document. After reading it you'll be impressed with just how difficult it is to measure radiation dosages; I know I was.

    U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission 10 CFR part 30.15. This is the regulation specifically covering the amounts of radioactive material permitted in timepieces and other "glow-in-the-dark" items. However, no limits are given for watches containing radium, only tritium and promethium-147.

    UCSF Radiation Safety Training Manual, Chapter 3.

    HyperPhysics page on radiation exposure at GSU. (They point out that wearing a luminous dial watch for a year increases your radiation exposure by 1 mrem, but that's the whole-body dose. The local dose to hand/torso will be higher. High enough to be a concern? Probably not, but saying "1 mrem" seems a bit disingenuous.)

    HyperPhysics page discussing radiation risks.

    Human Radiation Experiments: Oral Histories at the US Department of Energy. There you will find discussion from some of the pioneers in radiation research of the debate over threshold doses and cancers induced by radiation, along with a lot of other very interesting material. It's a lot to wade through, but I feel I learned more from reading it than from any other resource listed on this page.

    RadSafe archives. Lots of good stuff here. If nothing else it shows very clearly the polarized debate among otherwise rational people about radiation risks.

    Estimating Cancer Risks — a very readable and reasonably balanced article showing how difficult it is to estimate the effects of low-level doses of mutagens or radioactivity, even with large populations. It's probably the most useful resource I've run across; the honest truth is, nobody has any idea how safe your radium watch is, and probably never will be able to give you an exact estimate on the risks involved.

    "Radioactivity and Health: A History", by Dr. J. Newell Stannard. Deals primarily with the toxicological effects of radioactive substances and concentrates on research done from 1940 to 1985, but chapter 1 has useful historical information on radium; also contains much data on dose-related effects. (This book is huge, over 2000 pages, and it's not something the casual reader would want to use as a source. But it will be a long time before it is surpassed as a critical, fair look at radiation concerns.)

    Living With Radiation: The First Hundred Years is an excellent book full of photos and descriptions of various radioactive devices, nostrums, and other radiation sources. It's an excellent read, and has a tiny bit of info on luminescent dials used on clocks and watches. (Unfortunately it appears that the table listing dosages is either mislabeled or just plain wrong.)

    Other views
    Luminous Watch Dial Risks at the Elgin watch site. They have pointers to other sites as well.

    Discussion of dangers from military instrument dials. The issues here are somewhat similar (radium was used in many military instrument dials for years) but of course the dials aren't being worn on the body, so the safety issues are different in one major respect.

    Hazards from luminised timepieces in watch/clock repair (from the Health and Safety Executive in the UK). If you're interested in refinishing radium watch dials this is a good source of information.
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  37. kirxklox

    kirxklox Registered User
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    Few of you realize the extensive use of Radioactive particles in your everyday life. Smoke detectors have a small amount of Einsteinium as a detector. Almost all Electronic devices uses small amounts of radioactive material. Microwave Ovens and Most timers. Working is a Building with Granite or Slate is another major source of Radiation exposure.

    The biggest problem in all of this is Language.

    Few of you realize the Greatest hazard to Clock Makers and have hardly ever discussed it on this MB. For Watch makers the problem is only of a different but similar metal.
     
  38. Kevin W.

    Kevin W. Registered User

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    Sam would that metal be mercury?
    Just a guess.
    Yes i am somewhat aware of the normal radiation exposure we do get.
     
  39. David Robertson

    David Robertson Registered User
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    and if you are good little boys and girls, Sam will give you the answer tomorrow at this same time... or another riddle...

    You already teased us with this topic once before, Sam...
     
  40. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    Vert;

    Great article and summary. A great effort on your part for sure.

    The thing you point out, which is the crux of the problem, is not knowing which is which.

    So, you have for example a person who wishes to learn watch repair.

    This person, they buy a radium watch from ebay. Seller doesn't know, buyer doesn't know.

    What happens to him/her when they take the hands and the dial off to do some repair?

    Wearing the watch was not my issue. Working on them and potential deadly dust particles.

    I suppose the only reasonable answer to this delima is to create a radium watch/clock list and have those items either banned from sale on ebay or perhaps at least some manditory acknowledgement.

    Think in human terms. What people naturally tend to do.

    People who work on clocks/watches tend to use the kitchen/dining room table. And a willing and ignorant newbie to watch repair would tare into a radium watch/clock with total dis-reguard.

    There is no saftey net. No saftey measure here. So I suspect the best thing that can be done is to ban the sale of known radium watches on ebay.

    The public does need to be protected.
    RJ
     
  41. David Robertson

    David Robertson Registered User
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    maybe a Senate Hearing.. those are popular nowadays...

    (just kidding)... and not meaning to make light of a serious subject,, just couldn't resist... :)
     
  42. fixoclox

    fixoclox Registered User
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    Hello
    Also think about all the Jewelers who were soldering on asbestos pads up until the 1980's. I wonder what harm a jogger does when they run next to hords of automobiles. bill
     
  43. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    fixoclock on ignore.
    RJ
    [edit=2265=1208643421][/edit]
     
  44. kirxklox

    kirxklox Registered User
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    No. Lead, Copper, and Arsenic! These are a lot more Dangerous than the small amount of exposure from radiation.
     
  45. leeinv66

    leeinv66 Super Moderator
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    Yea, that will teach him not to agree with you RJ! Dang, I guess that means I am now on the list as well. Ah well, at least I can sleep easy knowing that as a member of the public, someone is looking out for my best interests. Good lord, can you imagine what would happen if I was left to my own devises. I’d actually have to educate myself about the relative dangers associated with my daily existence and make rational decisions about what is and isn’t safe to do.
     
  46. fixoclox

    fixoclox Registered User
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    Thanks If he would have read the past threads on this subject he might of seen my advice was leave it alone and if necessary emerse in water to do what you MUST. I DON'T BOTHER IT 99 % OF THE TIME. OUR GOVERNMENT SAYS THEY HAVEN'T USED IT SINCE THE THIRTIES BUT, I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT. PEACE BILL@FIXOCLOX
     
  47. RJSoftware

    RJSoftware Registered User

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    No. No problem with you Pee-tah. At least you try to make a logical argument of what you believe. Not just some snotty illogical comment to make social points.

    RJ
     
  48. Ansomnia

    Ansomnia Registered User

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    RJ, what you have said about the dangers of a small particle of radium getting loose in a living area (much less an eating area) is essentially correct. If people can keep the radium paint confined inside a watch or clock bezel and dial then the danger of ingestion is obviated. However, you wouldn't be able to service the movement and a crystal can still break.

    As you said, your main concern is what happens if you work with watch/clock hands and dials coated with radium. A Geiger counter may or may not be able to pick up much gamma radiation and old Geiger counters will likely not pick up any alpha emissions. If you do not know much about radiation and do not have a proper type of Geiger counter, you cannot trust what you are reading from the indicators.

    People get sick and die from unknown causes all the time. People with no known risk factors still die from lung cancer and other cancers. Doctors rarely do autopsies and in-depth investigations unless there are suspicious circumstances like a hazardous workplace or intentional poisoning. So most of these cancer deaths from unknown causes are never investigated. We have no idea if these people ingested a carcinogen inadvertently, had an undetected tumour virus or just died from naturally-occurring mutations.

    This is not a pleasant topic but it is after all not a laughing matter. The discussion is worthwhile if it would help just one person avoid getting sick from messing with radium.

    Bang,

    as we agree, the main hazard from radium is ingestion. But with ingestion, there is essentially no safe level of exposure. It is not a matter of it being OK to ingest a bit of it. RJ is correct about not having any of the material in his home. Industry gets away with making fatal mistakes and having poor safety standards all the time. In the US, Americans rely a lot on litigation to put the fear of God in businessmen who take such risks with other people's health. Canadians do not sue very often because we have different laws and cultural habits. Canadians rely more on our governments to watch out for us (with varying degrees of success). That I believe, is a fair and illuminating statement about one difference between our 2 peoples.

    Finally, the industry did not get out of the radium dial business without good cause. But did they recall all the clocks and watches? No. I suspect they would have been very happy if all the previously-made radium dials and hands simply vanished for good. The industry did not want to deal with it beyond stopping production but they did not realized people would be collecting them one day after the episode had been forgotten. As quoted earlier, the half-life of one radium isotope, Ra-226 is 1,602 years.


    Michael
     
  49. bangster

    bangster Super Moderator
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    Watches, schmatches.
    What about clocks?
     
  50. clocks4u

    clocks4u Registered User
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    People who work on clocks/watches tend to use the kitchen/dining room table. And a willing and ignorant newbie to watch repair would tare into a radium watch/clock with total dis-reguard.

    Maybe you do, but everyone I know has a work bench in the shop or garage.

    Are you serious about banning the sale of radium dialed alarm clocks on Ebay? :???:.. Me thinks you jest. If you do believe it, I think you need to go to your bedroom, pull the sheet over your head, and just wait till you die.

    A friend of mine said something to me that I found funny at the time and it fits in here. He said " I never eat carrots"...I asked him why. He said.. "both sets of his grandparents ate carrots and now they are dead.". I told him that everyone eats carrots at one time or another...he then said with a wink..."and we will all die someday, so it must be the carrots."

    Chris

    [edit=80=1208704212][/edit]
     
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