I looked into this topic when a friend of mine, Stephanie Riley, posed the question about flying back home to Arizona after buying a piece of Vaseline glass in West Virginia. Vaseline glass is an antique glass that is generally transparent and has a yellowish or greenish hue. However, when you place this glass under a black light, it looks…well…radioactive. It glows a vibrant, bright green. This glass is also called Uranium Glass because Uranium Dioxide was used in the molten glass to give it the greenish-yellow color in the final piece. Most pieces of Vaseline, or Uranium, Glass were made in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. However, there are companies that still make the glass today. Pieces made today are decorative and not intended to be used with food or drink consumption. Just to give you an idea, a worker transporting the Uranium Glass from the factory to the warehouse would receive, on average, 4 mrem/year (millirem/year).
Another collectible that is radioactive is clocks and watches with glow-in-the-dark faces or hands. The faces or hands were painted with radioluminescent paint containing radium. The peak era of production of these pieces was the early 1900’s (what is it about that time frame?). Radium dials were hand painted, generally by young women. Who has licked the end of a paintbrush to make very fine lines when painting? Well, these young women did too and suffered the consequences of the radiation in the form of jaw bone degeneration. Once the connection was made to the radium, the women sued their company, the U. S. Radium Corporation, who told them the paint was harmless. The Radium Girls, as they became known, won their suit. These watch and clock faces can still give off 20 to 100 mrem/year. So you may think twice about wearing a watch with a radium face.
One widely used collectible with serious amounts of radiation is Fiestaware. Now, before you go and call in a hazmat team for your Fiestaware collection beside your dinner table, you need to know that only the pieces made before 1972 may contain varying amounts of radioactive goodness. Generally speaking, the reds and oranges contain the highest amounts. Again, it is not recommended to eat or drink from Fiestaware that was made prior to 1972. Higher amounts can be found in pre-WWII pieces. Red pieces from the first years of production have been measured to give off between 30 and 40 mrem/year. However, if you have a collection of the old red pieces, you can multiply that amount. For instance, an 8 place setting containing a dinner plate, salad plate, and bowl would give off about 720 mrem/year.
While it is generally safe to own radioactive items, it is good practice not to lick them or wear them. Some common sense goes a long way. When I was going through college, I was in a work program where I went to school a semester and worked a semester. The place I worked was the North Anna Nuclear Power Station. That was a different story. I did have to wear the big yellow hooded suit a few times when I went into highly contaminated areas of the plant. It was all very safe though. Extremely safe. As a part of my attire, I wore a digital dose meter when I went into these high radiation areas. I think the highest I ever saw on my meter was around 40 mrem/hour. I was only in that area for about 10 minutes, so my dose was still quite low. The limit allowed in a year was 5000 mrem. On average, the public receives about 500 to 600 mrem in a year from background radiation and medical procedures. I hope you can see from these numbers that having a collection of bright red Fiestaware will increase your radiation levels only slightly. Even with the background radiation, if you carried around the 8 place setting mentioned above every day of the year, you would still be at only 1320 mrem. The key is the same thing we learned in our safety videos at the power plant – time, distance and shielding. It may be difficult to put up a lead wall in front of your China cabinet. But a little common sense would tell you not to use the Vaseline glass tumbler for your rinse cup when brushing your teeth twice a day. Oh, and Stephanie made it back to Arizona with her Vaseline glass just fine. And that was even after being selected for pre-screening at the airport.