Could your collectible item contain radium?

A radiation detection instrument is being used to identify an aircraft instrument that contains radium paint.

Identifying a device that contains a radium luminous compound

What is radium? Radium, known scientifically as Ra-226, is a radioactive element found naturally in the environment. It is a decay product of uranium that is found in almost all rocks and soils. Radium is long-lived (its half-life is more than 1,600 years) and decays with time into radon gas, and then finally stabilizes as lead.

Have you ever wondered if any of your collectibles might be radioactive or dangerous? Do you own any old wristwatches or clocks, marine compasses, aircraft instruments or other military items? Until the 1960s, various military and consumer products were manufactured using a radium-based paint that glows in the dark. We refer to these products as radium luminous devices. The radium luminous device itself is not radioactive; however the radioactivity is associated with the radium luminous paint in the device. Although the devices no longer glow in the dark due to the breaking down of the paint over time, the radium continues to be radioactive for thousands of years. When new, the radium luminous paint was often white, but typically tarnished to yellow as it aged. Radium luminous devices are generally not identified or marked as containing radioactive materials. Only a radiation detection instrument can confirm if a device contains radium luminous compounds.

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Devices containing radium luminous compounds

A wristwatch, containing radium-painted hands and numerals, manufactured in 1936.

Vintage timepiece containing a radium luminous compound.

A vintage clock with radium-painted numerals and pointers.

Vintage clock containing a radium luminous compound

A German compass from World War II with radium-painted pointers.

Wartime compass containing a radium luminous compound

An aircraft navigational instrument with radium-painted lettering, numerals and pointers.

Aircraft instrument containing a radium lumious compound

An oxygen regulator from an aircraft, with radium-painted numerals and lettering.

Oxygen regulator stencilled with a radium luminous compound

Pictured are some personnel markers that contain radium luminous paint. Markers such as these were primarily used during World War II by the navy, and could be clipped to a belt or helmet to allow sailors or soldiers operating under darkened conditions to identify each other's positions. These markers were used by paratroopers to help identify their locations.

Personnel markers containing radium luminous compounds

A compass from a Lancaster Bomber, containing radium-painted markings.

Aircraft compass containing a radium luminous device

Pictured are a number of devices that contain radium luminous compounds. The devices include vintage military aircraft instruments, toggle switches, vintage consumer timepieces including a pocket watch and a travel alarm clock, instrument knobs, a circuit breaker, and drawer pulls.

Collection of devices containing radium luminous compounds

How can I identify a radium luminous device?

In general, radium luminous devices are not identified as containing radioactive materials. The radium luminous paint was often white when it was new but would typically tarnish to yellow. Although it remains radioactive for thousands of years, the paint has broken down chemically over time, and so the devices may no longer glow in the dark. There may be no visible signs that radioactivity is present.

Are these devices dangerous?

The radium inside these devices is a naturally occurring radioactive nuclear substance that can be hazardous in certain circumstances. For instance, a potential danger exists from internal 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 be caused by large collections of radium luminous devices; high levels of radiation can be found when many of these devices are grouped together. For more information, go to the Radiation Hazards section.

If a radium luminous device is no longer luminous, is it still dangerous?

Even if the working life of the device has ended, the radium contained within the device is still radioactive, and therefore, a potential hazard remains. Over time, the radium luminous paint breaks down chemically and may no longer glow-in-the-dark but, the radium remains, given its 1,600-year half-life. For more information, go to the Radiation Hazards section.

I collect vintage wartime pieces. Could my collection be hazardous?

Large collections of radium luminous devices may be hazardous. High levels of radiation can be found when many of these devices are grouped together (e.g., in parts bins or cabinets). The biggest hazards come from the intake of radium-contaminated paint through ingestion (e.g., from contaminated hands), inhalation (e.g., breathing in loose radium-based paint flecks) and absorption through the skin (e.g., through open wounds). For more information, go to the Radiation Hazards section.

How should I handle and store radium luminous devices?

Care should be taken when handling radium luminous devices to avoid contamination. The best way to protect yourself is by being aware that a hazard is present and by following safe handling practices.

The biggest risk from radium luminous devices is from exposure to the paint. Over time, the paint breaks down, becomes brittle and flakes. A radiation risk can result if the paint is transferred to a person’s hands and is ingested. For example, if the device is in good condition and the glass is intact, exposure to this device would pose minimal risk. Simple precautions, such as storing the device in a re-sealable bag and handling the device while wearing disposable gloves, should reduce risks. Other things to keep in mind:

  • Do not 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
  • Contain cracked or damaged radium luminous devices; contact the CNSC 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

Elevated levels of radon may also be found when radium luminous devices are stored in poorly ventilated areas. Radon is an odourless, colourless radioactive gas and is the product of the radioactive decay of radium. Radon can escape from radium luminous devices, especially those without a face or with a cracked or damaged face. Over time, the seals on the faces of these devices also degrade, allowing more radon to escape.

Radon gas concentrations are found to be extremely variable and not necessarily directly related to the number of devices stored together. Factors include the amount of radium in a device, the condition of the device and whether the radium paint is sealed. Radon gas concentrations are usually not an issue with a small number of devices in well-ventilated areas. To reduce the risks, store radium luminous devices in well-ventilated, low occupancy areas. For more information visit our Radon page.

What should I do if I have a radium luminous device that is cracked or damaged?

If you have 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.

Could dismantling a radium luminous device cause a risk to the person?

Dismantling a radium luminous device increases the risk of inhaling or ingesting radium and the risk of contaminating the surrounding area. Do not open or tamper with a radium luminous device. For more information, consult the Radiation Hazards section.

Where can I have a radium luminous device serviced?

Service activities include disassembling radium luminous devices for repair or removing radium luminous compounds. A CNSC-licensed service provider is required for these activities. For example; particular care must be taken when testing vintage pneumatically or vacuum-operated aircraft instrumentation containing radium luminous paint. Testing equipment, including vacuum pumps, connected to the ports of such devices may actively extract loose particles of radium paint and cause the contamination of equipment and persons.

Members of the public can contact the CNSC to obtain information about licensed service providers.

How can I safely dispose of a radium luminous device?

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

These devices may be accepted for disposal through the Government of Canada at no cost through the Historic Artefact Recovery Program (PDF, 285 KB) (HARP), operated by CNL. The HARP provides technical advice, assistance, identification and management of radioactive artefacts, including radium luminous devices, found on public and private properties across Canada.

Are these devices still being produced?

In Canada, the production of radium luminous devices 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.

Radiation hazards from radium luminous compounds

How dangerous is radium? The radium and its decay products contained in the luminous paint used in these devices are radioactive and emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. 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 about radiation and its effects, visit the CNSC’s website. If radium luminous devices are stored in poorly ventilated areas, elevated levels of radon may be found. Radon is an odourless, colourless, radioactive gas and is the product of the radioactive decay of radium. Radon has the ability to escape from radium luminous devices, especially ones without a face or with a cracked or damaged face. Over time, the seals on the faces of these devices also degrade, allowing more radon to escape. The health risk from exposure to radon is primarily caused by exposure to its decay products. If radon gas is present, its decay products, which are solid at room temperature, can attach to dust particles or to the surface of solid materials; some may remain unattached. Both attached and unattached fractions may be inhaled. Once deposited in the lungs, radon and its decay products emit alpha radiation, which can damage the living cells that line the lungs. For more information, consult the Radon page.

Radon gas concentrations are extremely variable and are not necessarily directly related to the number of devices stored together. Factors include the amount of radium in a device, the condition of the device and whether the radium paint is sealed. Radon gas concentrations are not usually an issue with a small number of devices in well-ventilated areas. To reduce the risks, store radium luminous devices in well-ventilated, low-occupancy areas.

What are the hazards of radiation exposure?

Radium and its decay products emit 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 can occur when many of these devices are grouped together (e.g., in parts bins or cabinets).

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

What about radioactive contamination?

Radioactive contamination is the uncontrolled distribution of radioactive material in a given environment. When radium luminous devices are opened, radioactive contamination can occur because the paint that contains the radium luminous compounds has become brittle with age and flakes off the surface of the device. Proper handling procedures are necessary to avoid radiation risks. If you think you may have a contamination problem after discovering that you unknowingly opened a radium luminous device, please contact the CNSC for further advice and information.

What does radium do once it gets into the body?

Most radium that is ingested leaves the body through the feces. About 80% of the ingested radium leaves the body after three days, and after one week, 95% of the ingested radium has left the body. The radium that remains in the body behaves in a manner similar to calcium and is deposited in bones and teeth. The amount of radium in bones decreases with time 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 of the radium remains in the bones throughout an exposed person's lifetime.

What are the health effects of exposure to radium?

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 100 mSv; 100 times the CNSC’s annual public dose limit.

Radium is a bone seeker and it will primarily irradiate bone tissue. Therefore, inhaled or ingested radium will increase a person’s risk of developing bone-related diseases like lymphoma or 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 a significant intake of radium.

How can I decrease the radiation risks?

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 lower a radiation dose that person will receive.

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

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

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

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

If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to contamination from a radium luminous device, please contact the CNSC for additional information and advice.

Licensing information for radium luminous devices

Why is the CNSC interested in radium luminous devices?

Because radium is radioactive, it is a potential hazard and must be treated accordingly. Radium is included under the definition of a nuclear substance in 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 may potentially be exposed to radium luminous devices is of concern to the CNSC.

Who needs a CNSC licence to handle radium luminous devices in Canada?

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 that the device is intact and has not been tampered with.

A CNSC licence is required when radium luminous devices are serviced. Service activities include disassembling radium luminous devices for repair or for the removal of radium luminous compounds.

For more information on the licence application process, contact the CNSC.

Proper disposal of radium luminous devices

Radium luminous devices cannot be disposed of as regular garbage, and must be disposed of through a CNSC-licensed radioactive waste management facility.

These devices may be accepted for disposal through the Government of Canada at no cost through the Historic Artefact Recovery Program (HARP), operated by CNL. HARP provides technical advice, assistance, identification and management of radioactive artefacts, including radium luminous devices, found on public and private properties across Canada. Information about HARP can be found at National Programs.

For additional information, visit the CNSC-licensed radioactive waste management facility page.

These devices must also be disposed of at a CNSC-licensed radioactive waste management facility.

Information for scrap metal recyclers and waste facility operators

What are my responsibilities if a radium luminous device is discovered at my facility?

Radium luminous devices can be found in the public domain, in places such as antique stores, museums, junkyards, or garage sales, eventually ending up in waste or scrap metal recycling facilities. If a radium luminous device enters the metal recycling processing stream, equipment and products can be contaminated, resulting in significant financial impacts due to clean-up costs. Undetected radium luminous devices may also cause unnecessary risk to members of the public, facility workers and the environment.

If a radium luminous device is discovered at a waste or scrap metal facility, the device should be isolated from occupied areas. Wearing disposable gloves, carefully contain the device in a bag or a drum, and isolate it in a location with limited access. The CNSC can be contacted at 1‑888‑229‑2672, or through the CNSC duty officer at 613‑995‑0479, for further instructions.

Radium luminous devices may also be accepted for disposal through the Government of Canada at no cost through the Historic Artefact Recovery Program (PDF, 285 KB) (HARP), operated by CNL. HARP provides technical advice, assistance, identification and management of radioactive artefacts, including radium luminous devices, found on public and private properties across Canada.

For more information on the Alarm response guidelines for radiation portal monitoring systems, visit the Alarm Response Guidelines for radiation portal monitoring system. The CNSC has also developed alarm response guidelines to assist waste management and scrap metal facility workers respond appropriately to the situation:

For more information on radium luminous devices:

Email: cnsc.radiumradium.ccsn@canada.ca

Toll-free from Canada: 1‑800‑668‑5284

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