Some months ago in an antique mall in Lancaster County, I saw a man with two odd-looking gadgets that emitted a beeping noise now and then.
Being a curious former news reporter, I had to ask him what he was doing. He said the devices were similar to Geiger counters, and that measuring radioactivity in antiques was sort of a hobby of his.
The man was checking out different types of instruments that had gauges on them. He said the radiation level in antiques is small and isn’t harmful.
I never gave it another thought until last week when reader George Losoncy sent me a link to a bbc.com article about radiation in antiques.
He was aware of it because he had a minor collection of Fiestaware and had learned that the vintage red and yellow pieces shouldn’t be used for cooking or eating because they’re radioactive.
The article was about Andrew Walker of Montana. He began checking for radiation in the environment and antiques after seeing a video of a man who collects radioactive objects.
I found it on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, epa.gov.
The site states that radium, uranium and a few other radioactive materials were used in many items before anyone understood what the danger was.
It was used for color until the 1970s, as it was in orange-red Fiestaware and the yellowish green glass often referred to as Vaseline glass.
Clocks, watches, compasses and dials that glow in the dark without the use of a battery, cloisonné jewelry and glazes used on ceramics and pottery also contained radioactive material.
“Antiques containing radioactive material can continue to emit very low levels of radiation for thousands of years, if not longer,” the EPA website states.
Some antiques do contain enough radiation to register on a hand-held Geiger counter, but they’re not usually a health risk if they’re in good condition, according to the EPA.
So the EPA advises not to take apart a radium dial clock, watch or instrument and not to use the vintage orange-red Fiestaware or Vaseline glass for food or drink.
You can check your glassware or jewelry by putting it under an ultraviolet light, also known as a black light, which converts energy in ultraviolet radiation into visible light.
If an object contains any radioactive material, it will glow bright green.
And you can contact the state Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Radiation Protection, if you have any questions or need instructions on how to dispose of an item you suspect is radioactive and that you no longer want. The number is 717-787-2480.
Some collectors really do hunt for radioactive antiques.
Presumably they know exactly what they have, how to handle it and how to store it without endangering themselves or their family and friends.
Read more at Treasure Hunt: Antiques can emit radiation