Disclaimer: This post is not intended to cast blame on any eBay seller, any crafter, or any manufacturer. I’m sharing this as a public service, because I was really taken aback by what was shown to me this evening. I’m not posting this to encourage the kind of 11 o’clock news paranoia so often raised by this kind of information, but rather to raise a healthy level of awareness in my fellow hobbyists.
As many of you know, I make Steampunk Jewelry for fun and sometimes profit. I buy old watch parts off of eBay, glue them together into new and interesting shapes, and make them into pins and necklaces and earrings. Back in October, I won an auction that contained a bunch of old military watch faces. When they arrived, I looked them over, and after fiddling with them for a bit, and even preparing some of them to be made into jewelry, I noticed that several of them had greenish paint on their numerals. Huh, I thought. I’ll bet that’s the infamous radium paint I’ve heard so much about.
I didn’t pay it much mind. After Googling a bit, I decided they were probably risky, so I segregated the suspect faces into a plastic bag and stuck them inside an Altoids box. I made up the rest of my jewelry, and took it to a local show. I sold a few pieces.
Fast forward through the holidays. I was making up a care package for a buddy in Alaska, because I had promised her a pin for Christmas. I picked out a hair barrette for her that I was particularly proud of, and noticed that the center dial had slipped under my radar: It too had greenish paint on the numerals. I hemmed and hawed a bit. Is it risky? Is it safe? Am I being paranoid? More Googling. More wibbling. (Side note: I grew up on a farm, around pesticides and cow manure and axle grease. I’m a little less paranoid than many people about “toxicity”.)
I finally gave in to my suspicion and contacted the DEQ and also sent an email to a friend of mine who’s a Chem professor at Western Michigan University. He directed me to WMU’s Radiation Safety Officer. After an exchange of emails, the Radiation Safety Officer graciously agreed to come over to my house after work and check my jewelry supplies with a Geiger-Müller meter.
Turns out it was a darn good thing he stopped by.
The faces that I thought had radium paint were definitely giving off minute levels of radiation — not enough to be immediately harmful, but definitely there. We surveyed my entire batch of watch parts and found a bunch more faces and parts — plain metal parts the casual observer would never suspect — were also radioactive. Old movements that probably had radium faces on them — but without the faces, there was no way to tell. Tiny wristwatch hands with a pinhead-sized dab of paint on them turned out to be giving off as much radiation as some of the full-sized faces. Faces with so much of the paint flaked off of them that you could barely see the numerals on them showed as being hot. That barrette I was going to send my friend, the pin that a co-worker was going to get for Christmas, a pair of earrings a friend of mine made for me years ago — they all had radium paint.
How radioactive were they? Not enough to harm you unless you swallowed one of the radium dials or duct-taped it to your forehead and left it there for a few years. Casual contact would probably not do you much harm; even an inch or two away from the hot pieces, the meter only picked up background radiation. Metal that had been in contact with the hot faces was also largely fine: after I pried the hot movement off of a pin-back, the pin-back registered as normal. Still — radium has a half-life of 1600 years, so it’s not like it’s going to go away anytime soon. Far better safe than sorry.
According to the Radiation Safety Officer (and this MIT document),the legal annual occupational exposure of radiation for an adult (people trained in the use and handling of radioactive materials and radiation-producing machines), above background levels, is 5 REM per year. (1 REM is equal to 1 rad times a quality factor for the type of radiation being emitted.) The watch-hand in the middle video was giving off 5 millirads (Beta-Gamma). Since 1 rad == 1,000 millirads that means that you would have to affix that watch hand, radium-side-down, to your skin for about 1,000 hours (41 days straight) for this to start becoming a hazard.
The danger here is from proximity; radium emits radiation, but it’s a relatively weak emitter. That means that just about anything (metal, glass, skin, even a few inches of air) will stop its radiation. As you saw in the videos, you had to get the Geiger-Müller meter really close to the objects before the radium registered.
Another danger is that as the radium paint gets older, the binder that holds the paint together decays, allowing the radium paint to flake off and migrate around. Which means if you’re handling a lot of radium pieces, and then you wipe your nose, or eat a sandwich, or if you have cuts on your fingers, you’re introducing radium into your body, where it will migrate to your bones and hang out, still emitting radiation slowly for years to come.
Exposed radium paint on jewelry is a bad idea — not because wearing it under normal circumstances would cause heavy exposure, but because the risks associated with handling the piece and allowing the radium dust to spread to other places, or internally. If you’re intending to make jewelry out of watch parts, you should be very careful to not collect any pieces with unshielded radium paint, and if you see anything you even remotely suspect is radium, set it aside and get it checked out by a professional. You should not try to scrape or wash off the radium paint yourself. Radium dust can move around easily, so you may also want to have your work areas checked. When the Radiation Safety officer did an inspection of my work areas, we found only background radiation. That was comforting, let me tell you.
The good news is that now all the clockwork crafting supplies I currently have in my possession are clean and have been inspected thoroughly by a professional. The bad news is that I’ve made and sold a bunch of this jewelry already.
So: If you, or anyone you know, has ever purchased clockwork jewelry from me, you may return it to me for either inspection or a full refund, your choice. Just mail it to me with a note telling me how much it cost, and I’ll either have it inspected and sent back to you free of charge, or if it turns out hot, I’ll have it properly disposed of and will send you a check, including your shipping fee, for the balance.
I’ve probably only sold about fifty pieces of jewelry — I don’t have an Etsy shop, but I have sold my jewelry at several comic book conventions, including SPX and Wizard World Chicago. I suspect that only one of my pieces contained a radium watch dial, and I’ve already contacted the owner of that piece directly. However, I’m offering the buyback/inspection to my customers because I care as much about their peace of mind as much as I do my own work.
Please feel free to cross-post this to other forums and boards, and share this information with anyone you know who is a Steampunk crafter or who makes jewelry out of watch and clock parts. If you have questions about your own materials, do what I did: call your local public university and ask to speak to their Radiation Safety Officer. Alternately, call your state’s Department of Environmental Quality: the Michigan DEQ rep was also willing to come out, free of charge, and inspect and remove any hot material — the WMU Safety Officer just responded first*. A blogger with experience in radioactive materials also offered this helpful link to the Health Physics Society, which has a FAQ and links to help you find health physicists in your area.
The Radiation Safety Officer asked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about registering the material and was told that Michigan has exempt quantities of radium for timepieces and it does not require that the pieces be intact. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also has exempt quantities, but does have stipulations about intact or loose parts. If you have questions regarding disposal of radium timepieces (or their parts), you should look into your particular state requirements for quantities. However, it may open an expensive proposition in quantifying the curie content of the materials.
Radium paint isn’t anything to be terribly frightened of, but as crafters, we need to be well aware of the risks inherent in our medium, especially if we’re intending to sell our pieces to the public.
* I need to give an enormous thankyou to WMU’s Radiation Safety Officer for the time he spent inspecting my house and crafts, and for safely disposing of my hot material. He was very kind and thoughtful and thorough and took the time to explain a lot more about how radiation works, and more importantly, how it doesn’t work. I totally got my science-nerd fix for the week. Thank you again, sir!