Could your collectibles be radioactive?
February 28, 2012
Do you collect antique or military items such as wristwatches, clocks, marine compasses and aircraft instruments? Some of these collectibles could be radioactive without you even knowing!
Until the 1960s, various consumer and military products were manufactured using a radium-based, glow-in-the-dark paint. Radium is a radioactive element found naturally in the environment.
The most common remaining radium luminous devices (RLDs) are aircraft instruments, and there are tens of thousands of these in Canada today.
Although the radium in these devices remains radioactive for thousands of years, the paint which the radium was mixed with usually breaks down chemically after several years and may no longer glow in the dark. When new, the paint was often white, but typically it tarnished to yellow as it aged.
RLDs are generally not identified or marked as containing radioactive materials. Only a radiation detection instrument can confirm if a device contains radium. The hazards from exposure to radium can occur in two ways: by external contamination or by internal contamination through ingestion or inhalation.
When intact, an RLD poses little health risk. However, care should be taken when handling RLDs in order to avoid contamination. Exposure can be reduced or virtually eliminated by not opening the items and wearing gloves when handling them, keeping food or drinks in a separate location and properly disposing of broken devices.
The CNSC has exempted indefinitely devices containing radium luminous compounds from most regulatory controls given the low risk involved. Some restrictions remain in place however. A CNSC licence is still required to service RLDs. Service activities include disassembling or repairing a device or removing radium luminous compounds from a device.
RLDs are not permitted to enter into regular municipal waste streams, and their disposal must be with an authorized CNSC-licensed waste management facility. AECL’s Low Level Radioactive Waste Management Office (LLRWMO) will accept RLDs for transfer to a CNSC-licensed waste management facility.
Over the years, CNSC staff have responded to requests for assistance from stakeholders and members of the public. Examples include advising a museum in performing a radiological dose assessment of RLDs in their collection, and a visit to a private residence following the discovery of radium luminous military artefacts.
CNSC staff have now developed an enhanced outreach strategy to expand the education on RLDs to individual members of the public and more specifically, militaria collectors, on how to identify, safely handle and dispose of these devices.
Targeting a few key military heritage tradeshows each year, the CNSC will have an information booth and a radiation detection instrument on-site to help collectors identify whether their military collectibles could contain radium luminous compounds.