Are Old Radium Dial Watches , Clocks dangerous?

I have a number of old waches which have a yellowish coating on the hands and numerals-which glow in the dark .Are these dangerous to handle?. I would imagine that the paint contains some binders which are drying out, allowing the paint to crumble. What should be done with these items? Are they considered hazardous waste?

Yes, they would probably be considered hazardous waste if you checked with your local household hazardous waste facility/collectors.

For the most part, so long as the watch or clock is still sealed and uncracked, the flaking of the paint from the face isn’t likely to spread out from that area.

Unless I’m much mistaken the hazard from Radium dial watches is not the radiation they put out, but that they can become sources of household contamination, which might then lead to ingestion of the contamination, where the alpha particles emitted by the Radium become a hazard. If you can’t afford to have them disposed of properly, or have some sentimental value associated with them, I’d seal them in plastic bags, label them, and then seal them up all together in a sturdy box or can, then store in a cool, dry place. And then keep an ear out for household amnesty days for your local household hazardous waste collection facility.

First of all, are you sure they are Radium? If you leave them in total darkness for a long time, do they still glow? If not, they aren’t Radium, but rather Zinc Sulfide or some such.

I believe David Hahn used radium from old clocks in his attempt to build a fast breeder nuclear reactor.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hahn

I seem to recall he got more bang from his buck using Americium sources from smoke detectors, than he got from Radium. Off the top of my head, I don’t think Radium is a very plentiful neutron source.

ETA: Though having Radium bombarding light metal nuclei with alphas might generate neutrons… I can’t recall exactly how PuBe sources work.

If I recall old relatives correctly, they are dangerous. However, they are not so dangerous that they require special care. Best to check with local authorities over whether your items need special handling or not.

The reason I say this is because radiation = bad was not fully understood for years. Today, any kind of ionizing radiation is bad. But in the old days, it wasn’t always so. In a weird way, the folks who refined the uranium used in the atom bomb at Port Hope, Ontario, Canada (cite) were as safe as you can imagine. It was those at the local radium watch factory who were at risk.

The reason they were at risk was because they worked with very fine brushes, painting the raduim on the watch hands. To give their brushes the finest point possible, they would lick the brush. Over and over, day after day, they licked the radium to provide a fine point to paint the watch hands. And eventually, it caught up with them.

As a Canadian, I’m unsure whether I’m proud of this instance in my country’s history or not. But there is no denying that Canada played an important role in the development of the atomic bomb. Through the refining at Port Hope to the test at Alamagordo, we were involved. A further discussion is beyond the scope of this thread, so I’ll leave things as they are for now.

Yeah… that didn’t end up so well for him.

More about that here, at the US Radium company. The owners were total bastards about it.

From what I read, he found a bottle of radium paint in one of the old clocks, and that that was where he got the radioactive stuff to use for his experiments. He’d have to scrape the radium paint off a LOT of clock dials (a la Oliver Wendell Jones in Bloom County) to get enough to do anything serious with.

Radium is an alpha emitter and a hazard if ingested, but antique dealers seem to feel that if you keep your clocks closed, any dusy flaking off won’t escape.

On the subject of radium exposure, see Claudia Clark’s **Radium Girls:

http://www.amazon.com/Radium-Girls-Industrial-Health-1910-1935/dp/0807846406/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1206465928&sr=8-1
It’s an even-handed account that doesn’t fly off the handle when discussing the topics. It is horrible what the companies did – but it was pretty much in ignorance – the executives working in the offices on site got exposed as well. But the women painting on the dials got extraordinary doses, probably from “pointing” the brush tips with their mouths. One person I know claims that the women overexposed themselves by painting themselves deliberately (Look – I glow!), but there’s no evidence of that, and they didn’t have to – just working in the plant could get you seriously exposed. What I found shocking was that this wasn’t confined to the 1920s. As the later chapters of the book make clear, companies in Ohio and elsewhere were continuing to use radium paint for airplane dials into the 1960s (!)

IIRC–and it’s been years since I read the article in (I think) Reader’s Digest–he found a bottle of the paint in the back of an old clock. Which is, you know, way different than scraping a few faces.

IIRC these watch hands and numerals also contained zinc sulfide which the alpha particles caused to luminesce. Alpha particles would have been stopped by the glass cover of the watch.

Indeed. In 1964 or thereabouts, when I was six, my grandfather gave me an inexpensive watch that had a radium dial. I used to take it into a closet, shut the door, and hold it up to my eye, so I could watch the individual scintillations in the zinc sulfide. They were like tiny green sparks.

I know I’m doomed. :smiley:

As for the manufacturing hazards, I’m sure by that time they were more aware of the danger and dealt with it appropriately.