Frequent Questions

What kinds of consumer products contain radioactive materials?

A variety of consumer products contain radioactive materials. In some, the radioactive material is a working part of the product. In others, radiation is present because some component contains naturally-occurring radioactive materials.

Consumer products with radioactive components or emissions:

  • Smoke detectors: most smoke detectors available for home use contain americium-241, a radioactive element. Unless tampered with, smoke detectors pose little to no health risk; a smoke detector’s ability to save lives far outweighs the health risks from the radioactive materials. For more information on smoke detectors, visit EPA’s RadTown website.

 

  • Clocks and watches: some luminous watches and clocks contain a small quantity of hydrogen-3 (tritium) or promethium-147. Older watches and clocks (made before 1970) may contain radium-226 paint on dials and numbers to make them visible in the dark. Avoid opening these items because the radium could flake off and be ingested or inhaled. Learn more about tritium and radium at EPA’s radionuclides page.

 

  • Older camera lenses: some camera lenses from the 1950s-1970s incorporated thorium into the glass, allowing for a high refractive index while maintaining a low dispersion. The health risk from using older camera lenses is low; the radiation received when using a thoriated lens camera is approximately equal to natural background.

 

  • Gas lantern mantles: older, and some imported, gas lantern mantles generate light by heating thorium (primarily thorium-232). Unless gas lantern mantels are used as the primary light source, radiation exposure from thorium lantern mantles is not considered to have significant health impacts.

 

  • Televisions and monitors: Flat-screen televisions and monitors (e.g., LCD, OLED, plasma) do not use cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and therefore do not produce ionizing radiation. Older televisions and computer monitors that contain CRTs may emit x-rays. X-ray emissions from CRT monitors are not recognized as a significant health risk.

 

  • Sun lamps and tanning salons: the ultraviolet rays from sun lamps and tanning salons are as damaging to skin as the ultraviolet rays of the sun. In fact, warning labels are required which begin "DANGER—Ultraviolet radiation". You can learn more about performance standards for these devices from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

 

  • Ceramics: ceramic materials such as tiles and pottery may contain elevated levels of naturally-occurring uranium, thorium, and/or potassium. In many cases, the activity is concentrated in the glaze. Unless there is a large quantity of the material, the amount of radioactivity in these products is unlikely to be greater than natural background levels. However, some older dishware (e.g., pre-1972 Fiesta®ware) can have radioactivity exceeding background levels; to minimize health risks, you may not want to use these pieces for eating or drinking.

 

  • Glass: glassware, especially antique glassware with a yellow or greenish color, can contain easily detectable quantities of uranium. Such uranium-containing glass is often referred to as canary or vaseline glass. In part, collectors like uranium glass for the attractive glow that is produced when the glass is exposed to a black light. Even ordinary glass can contain high-enough levels of potassium-40 or thorium-232 to be detectable with a survey instrument. However, the radiation received when using glassware – even canary or vaseline glass – is unlikely to exceed background radiation levels.

 

  • Fertilizer: Commercial fertilizers are designed to provide varying levels of potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen to support plant growth. Such fertilizers can be measurably radioactive for two reasons: potassium is naturally radioactive, and the phosphorous can be derived from phosphate ore that contains elevated levels of uranium. Learn more about radiation in fertilizer and fertilizer production.

 

  • EXIT signs: Some EXIT signs contain the radioactive gas called tritium, allowing them to glow in the dark without electricity or batteries. The tritium used in EXIT signs gives off low-level beta radiation, causing a light-emitting compound to glow. Tritium EXIT signs do not pose a direct health hazard, as the beta radiation can be stopped by a sheet of paper or clothing. However, tritium EXIT signs must not be disposed of in normal trash. For more information on tritium EXIT signs, see the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s page on tritium EXIT signs.

Learn more about consumer products that contain radiation at EPA’s RadTown website.

For more information on consumer products that contain technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM), visit EPA’s TENORM page.

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