FAQ - Devices Containing Radium Luminous Compounds

  1. What is radium?
  2. What is a radium luminous compound?
  3. What is a radium luminous device?
  4. Are these devices dangerous?
  5. Are these devices still being produced?
  6. How can I identify a radium luminous device?
  7. How should I handle and store radium luminous devices?
  8. What about public displays?
  9. Can radium luminous devices be painted or varnished to reduce the risks?
  10. Would dismantling a radium luminous device cause risk to the person?
  11. What should I do if I possess a radium luminous device that is cracked or damaged?
  12. Where can I have a radium luminous device serviced?
  13. How can I safely dispose of a radium luminous device?

Radiation Hazards from Radium Luminous Compounds

  1. How dangerous is radium?
  2. What are the radiation exposure hazards?
  3. What about radioactive contamination?
  4. What does radium do once it gets into the body?
  5. What are the health effects of exposure to radium?
  6. How can I decrease the radiation risks?
  7. What should people do if they suspect they’ve been exposed to contamination from a radium luminous device?

Licensing Information for Radium Luminous Devices

  1. Why is the CNSC interested in radium luminous devices?
  2. Who needs a licence?

Devices Containing Radium Luminous Compounds

Q1. What is radium?

A1. Radium is a radioactive element found naturally in the environment.  It is a decay product of uranium which is found in almost all rocks and soils.  Radium is long-lived (its half-life is over 1,600 years) which decays with time to radon gas and finally stabilizes to lead.  It is hazardous to your health if it is ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Its scientific name is Ra-226.

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Q2. What is a radium luminous compound?

A2. A radium luminous compound consists of radium salts mixed with a chemical phosphor. The resulting compound is luminescent. This compound was developed into a paint and its luminescence made it popular for use in watch and clock faces, maritime compasses, and a variety of military items and aircraft instruments.  

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Q3. What is a radium luminous device?

A3. A radium luminous device is an instrument that contains a radium luminous compound. The device itself is not radioactive. The radioactivity is associated with the radium luminous paint in the device, which causes it to glow in the dark. 

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Q4. Are these devices dangerous?

A4. There is a potential danger from exposure to the radium luminous paint. As long as the device is not disassembled or tampered with, the risk of contamination is minimal. Potential hazards can also exist from collections of radium luminous devices, as high levels of radiation may develop if many of these devices are grouped together. More information on radiation hazards may be found in the Radiation Hazards section. 

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Q5. Are these devices still being produced?

A5. In Canada, production of radium luminous products ended in the 1960s. The use of radium in consumer products pre-dates the establishment of regulatory control of nuclear materials in Canada. By today’s standards, it is unlikely that the CNSC would permit the manufacture of radium luminous products. 

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Q6. How can I identify a radium luminous device?

A6. Radium luminous devices are generally not identified as containing radioactive materials. Although the radioactivity will remain for thousands of years, the radium luminous paint that was combined with it breaks down chemically after several years. Therefore, the devices may no longer glow in the dark and there may be no visible signs that radioactivity is present. When new, the paint was often white; the whitish paint typically tarnishes to yellow.

Only a radiation survey meter can confirm if a device contains radium luminous compounds.

If a radium luminous device is no longer luminous, is it still dangerous?
Even if the device has ended its working life, the radium contained within the instrument is still radioactive and therefore a potential hazard remains. Over time, the radium luminous paint will chemically break down, and may no longer be luminescent. The radium will still remain, due to its 1,600 year half-life. More information on radiation hazards may be found in the Radiation Hazards section. 

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Q7. How should I handle and store radium luminous devices?

A7. Care should be taken when handling radium luminous devices in order to avoid contamination.

  • Do not open radium luminous devices.
  • Minimize the number of radium luminous devices stored or displayed in one location.
  • When handling radium luminous devices, wear disposable gloves.
  • Cracked or damaged radium luminous devices should be contained. The CNSC should be contacted for additional advice.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke in areas where radium luminous devices are handled or stored.
  • Store radium luminous devices in a secure location away from occupied areas.

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Q8. What about public displays? 

A8. If a radium luminous device is on display, a public access boundary should be placed to exclude access to at least one metre from the display. Radium luminous devices should never be used in ‘hands-on’ displays. 

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Q9. Can radium luminous devices be painted or varnished to reduce the risks?

A9. Painting or varnishing radium luminous devices is not sufficient to shield the radiation emitted from the device, and will not decrease the radiation hazards. Radium luminous devices should never be opened to be painted.   

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Q10. Would dismantling a radium luminous device cause risk to the person?

A10. Do not open or tamper with a radium luminous device. Dismantling increases the risk of inhalation and ingestion of radium as well as the risk of contaminating the surrounding area. More information on radiation hazards may be found in the Radiation Hazards section. 

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Q11. What should I do if I possess a radium luminous device that is cracked or damaged?

A11. If you possess a radium luminous device that is cracked or damaged, wear disposable rubber gloves and carefully contain the device. Seal the container and store the cracked or damaged device away from occupied areas. Contact the CNSC for additional advice.

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Q12. Where can I have a radium luminous device serviced?

A12. Servicing of a radium luminous device is an activity that is licensed by the CNSC. Service activities include disassembling of radium luminous devices for repair or removal of radium luminous compounds. Members of the public can contact the CNSC to obtain information on licensed service providers.

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Q13. How can I safely dispose of a radium luminous device?

A13. Since these devices contain long-lived radioactive nuclear substances, they cannot be disposed of in regular waste streams for equipment or general refuse.  Requirements for transfer and disposal of these devices are defined under both federal and provincial legislation, and currently they must be disposed of with a radioactive waste management facility licensed by the CNSC. Please contact the CNSC to obtain information on licensed waste management facilities in your area.

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Radiation Hazards from Radium Luminous Compounds

Q1. How dangerous is radium?

A1. Radium and its decay products contained within the luminous paint of these devices are radioactive and exhibit alpha, beta and gamma radiation.  The hazards from exposure to these forms of radiation can occur in two ways: by external irradiation outside of the body and by exposure to internal contamination from radioactive material that has been inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. For more information on radiation and its effects, visit the CNSC’s Web site.

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Q2. What are the radiation exposure hazards?

A2. Radium emits highly penetrating gamma radiation that may result in external radiation hazards to the whole body, extremities, skin and lenses of the eyes. Potential hazards can also exist from collections of radium luminous devices. High levels of radiation may develop if many of these devices are grouped together (e.g. in parts bins or cabinets).

The biggest hazards are from the intake of radium through ingestion (e.g. from contaminated hands), inhalation (e.g. breathing in loose radium luminous paint) and absorption through the skin (e.g. through open wounds). 

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Q3. What about radioactive contamination? 

A3. Radioactive contamination is the uncontrolled distribution of radioactive material in a given environment. When radium luminous devices are opened, radioactive contamination may occur because the paint containing the radium luminous compounds becomes brittle with age and flakes off the surface of the device. Without proper handling procedures, a radiation risk can result. For those who believe they have a contamination problem resulting from unknowingly opening radium luminous devices, please contact the CNSC for further advice and information.

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Q4. What does radium do once it gets into the body?

A4.  Most radium that is ingested leaves the body through the feces. About 80% of the ingested radium leaves the body after three days, and 95% of the ingested radium will have left the body after one week. The radium that remains in the body behaves in a manner similar to that of calcium, and is deposited in bone and teeth.  The amount of radium in bone will decrease with time from the exposure, as it continues to be excreted through the feces and urine. However, since the release of radium from the bones is such a slow process, a portion will remain in the bones throughout an exposed person's lifetime.  

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Q5.  What are the health effects of exposure to radium?

A5. Long-term exposure to radium increases the risk of developing several diseases.

External exposure to gamma radiation from radium increases the risk of cancer to varying degrees in all tissues and organs. The probability of developing cancer increases with the level of exposure.  No radiation-induced cancers have been observed at radiation doses up to one hundred times the CNSC’s annual public dose limit (i.e. 100 mSv).

 Radium is a bone seeker, and it will primarily irradiate bone tissue. Therefore, inhaled or ingested radium will increase the risk of developing such bone-related diseases as lymphoma, bone cancer, and diseases that affect the formation of blood, such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. These effects usually take years to develop and require significant intakes of radium. Bone cancer develops at exposure levels of 10,000 mSv; ten thousand times the CNSC’s annual public dose limit.

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Q6. How can I decrease the radiation risks?

A6. Three factors come into play when decreasing the risks of radiation: time, distance, and shielding.

Time: The less time a person remains in the area of radiation, the less of a radiation dose that person will receive.

Distance: The intensity of radiation and its effects decrease as you move further away from the radioactive source. 

Shielding: Different materials, such as lead, can act as a shield between a radioactive source and people, thereby reducing the amount of radiation a person is exposed to.

Never open radium luminous devices. Minimize the number of radium luminous devices stored or displayed in one location. Wear disposable gloves when handling radium luminous devices. If you possess a radium luminous device that is cracked or damaged, wear disposable rubber gloves, carefully contain the device and isolate it to a location with limited access. Do not eat, drink or smoke in areas where radium luminous devices are handled or stored.

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Q7. What should people do if they suspect they’ve been exposed to contamination from a radium luminous device?

A7. For those who are concerned that they may have been exposed to contamination from a radium luminous device, please contact the CNSC for additional information and advice.

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Licensing Information for Radium Luminous Devices

Q1. Why is the CNSC interested in radium luminous devices?

A1. Radium, being radioactive, can be a potential hazard and must be treated accordingly. Radium is defined as a nuclear substance under the Nuclear Safety and Control Act, therefore its use is regulated by the CNSC.

As Canada’s nuclear regulator, the CNSC is responsible for regulating the use of nuclear energy and materials to protect health, safety and the environment to respect Canada’s international commitments on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. As such, the safety of anyone who potentially may be exposed to radium luminous devices is a concern to the CNSC.

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Q2. Who needs a licence?

A2. A person may possess, transfer and use any number of radium luminous devices without a licence, provided that radium is the only nuclear substance in the device and the device is intact and not tampered with. 
 
A CNSC licence is only required when radium luminous devices are serviced. Service activities include disassembling of radium luminous devices for repair or removal of radium luminous compounds. These devices must also be disposed of with a CNSC-licensed radioactive waste management facility.

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