MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Are luminous hands on a 1925 watch dangerous to wearer?

Date: Mon Feb 8 09:36:11 1999
Posted By: Ron Morgan, Staff, Health Physics/Radiological Engineering, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Area of science: Physics
ID: 917233168.Ph

Several radioactive materials have been used to illuminate watches, however 
radium was the only substance used for the purpose in 1925.  I was unable 
to find documented evidence of harm due to wearing radio-luminescent 
watches or having radio-luminescent clocks in the home.  I did find one 
anecdotal account of a neoplasm (an abnormal growth, possibly a precursor 
to cancer) occuring on the wrist of a man who wore a radium-dialed watch 
for many years.  Given the information above, I would have to say that 
wearing a radium-dialed watch is essentially risk-free.
However, during the manufacture of radium-dialed watches, clocks, and 
gauges in the early days of this century (in the 'teens and twenties), 
several dozen people (mostly young women) were seriously injured or killed 
when they ingested large quantities of radium (much much larger quantities 
than could be found on one watch or clock alone).

An excellent historical reference for the uses and risks of radioactive 
materials is "Radioactivity and Health: A History" by J. Newell Stannard 
(ISBN 0-87079-590-2, or microfiche 0-87079-591-0).  It's pretty expensive, 
but any competent technical library should have one. 

Also, a great source of reliable information on anything that radiates or 
is radioactive is the Health Physics Society.  Their website is and contact information and a list of local chapters is 
available by calling (703) 790-1745.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of dis-information out there about anything 
radioactive, so anything you find 'surfin' the net' should be taken with a 
grain of salt.

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