Jump to main content.

Radioactive Materials in Antiques

RadTown USA Topics
  Personal Exposure:
Printer Friendly Version
Radioactive Materials in Antiques (PDF) (2pp, 137Kb)
[about pdf format]

This page describes radioactive material found in some antiques.

On this page:


Among the furniture, clothing, jewelry, books, dolls, dishes, and many other objects sold at flea markets and antique shops, you will likely find items that contain radioactive compounds. These items were generally made and originally sold before the health effects of radiation were well- understood and long before radiation protection regulations were put in place.

Many antiques actively exploit the radioactive properties of radionuclides:

These items emit small amounts of radiation, but enough to register on a hand-held Geiger Counter.

Top of page

Clocks, Watches and Instrument Dials

When radium was discovered in the early 1900’s, people were fascinated with its mysterious glow. The hands and faces of some clocks, watches, and ship and airplane instruments were painted with paints containing radium to make them glow in the dark.

Over time, however, experts discovered that radium is highly radioactive and emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. Radium is particularly hazardous if inhaled or ingested because it then emits radiation directly to living tissue. Many radium dial painters licking the bristles of their paintbrushes to create fine tips for applying the paint to these small surfaces. Later many of them developed bone cancer, primarily in their jaws. By the 1970's, the practice of using radium on watch dials ended.

Do not attempt to disassemble radium watches or instruments.

Top of page


Glazes used for tiles, pottery, and other ceramics made before the 1960’s, often contain elevated levels of naturally-occurring radionuclides. Manufacturers typically used uranium, thorium, and/or potassium-40, all of which emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. As recently as the 1930s, Fiestaware® used uranium oxides to create the distinctive orange-red color of its dinnerware.

Top of page


Early 19th century European glass makers sometimes added small amounts of uranium to glass as a yellow-green coloring agent. Because of its yellowish color, this type of glass was called vaseline or canary glass. In part, collectors like canary glass for the attractive green glow the uranium gives off when exposed to a black light.

Starting around 1970, the intentional use of radioactive coloring agents in commercial glazes and glasses in the U.S. dramatically decreased. However their use continues in other countries, and ceramics and glasses containing radioactive coloring agents may occasionally enter the United States.

Antiques containing radioactive materials will continue to emit low levels of radiation for many years.

Top of page

Who is protecting you

The States

Each state has the authority to regulate naturally- occurring radioactive materials, including uranium, thorium, and radium.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

NRC establishes regulations for licensing the sale, use, and disposal of radioactive materials. Licensing requirements for the use of radioactive materials in consumer products are based on the quantity and radioactivity of the materials. Generally, NRC does not regulate antiques, but there are a few exception depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The Radioactive Source Reduction and Management initiatives at EPA identify uses of radioactive sealed sources that could be replaced by non-nuclear sources. It also works with the scrap metal and demolition industries in the U.S. and with international organizations to keep radioactive materials out of the nation's metal supply. This helps protect against the possibility of contaminated consumer products. EPA also works with the nationwide Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors to investigate methods for keeping radioactive materials out of consumer products. Generally, EPA does not regulate antiques, but there are a few exceptions depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)

DOT regulates the transport of hazardous materials, including radioactive materials, by highway, rail, air, and vessel. Hazardous materials regulations are contained in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Generally, DOT does not regulate the shipment of antiques, but there are a few exception depending on the origin of the radiation source and the source strength.

Top of page

What you can do to protect yourself

Antiques that contain radioactive material do not normally pose a significant hazard if they are intact and in good condition. The more radioactive antiques added to your collection the greater the potential hazard. Even though the potential radiation exposure from your antiques is very small, it is still possible to reduce it further.

Top of page


14 February 2006 - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This fact sheet provides basic information about radium, a radionuclide found in some antiques.
About the Radioactive Source Reduction and Management Program
08 March 2006 - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This page describes how radioactive contamination can enter the metal supply and steps EPA is taking to protect against contamination.
Consumer Products Containing Radioactive Material 
Health Physics Society exit EPA
This fact sheet provides information on common consumer products that may contain radioactive materials.
General Requirements for Shipments and Packaging 49CFR173.401-477 (PDF)
[about pdf format]
2004 - 49CFR173-- Subpart I_Class 7 (Radioactive) Materials, U.S. Department of Transportation
This site provides the packaging and transport requirements for certain radioactive materials.
Heavy-element chemistry at Los Alamos
2000 -  U.S. Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Laboratory
This article describes the fluorescence observed from radioactive materials.
Radioactive artifacts: historical sources of modern radium contamination
18 January 1988 -  U.S. National Institutes of Health, National Center for Biotechnology Information
This article describes how objects containing significant amounts of radium turn up at flea markets, antique shows, and antique dealers, in a variety of locations.

Top of page


Local Navigation

Jump to main content.