Anything we encounter in our daily lives can contain radioactive material, either naturally occurring or artificial. This material can be found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the ground we walk on, and the consumer products we purchase and use. While many people are familiar with radiation to diagnose disease and treat cancer, they may not realize that radioactive material is present in everyday items. With a simple handheld radiation survey meter, it is possible to identify and quantify the radioactive material in just about anything.
Here are some of the most common everyday items that are radioactive:
1. Watches and Clocks
Older watches and clocks used radium-226 as a source of light. If these timepieces are opened, and the dial or hands are handled, some of the radium could be picked up and possibly ingested. So caution should be exercised when handling these items.
Uranium-containing glass, often yellow or greenish, can be easily detected with a survey instrument. The glass gets its name because it glows when exposed to black light. Thorium-containing lenses from older cameras (from the 1950s to the 1970s) were often used to change the index of refraction.
Ceramic materials often contain elevated levels of naturally occurring uranium, thorium, and potassium. In most cases, the activity is concentrated in the glaze. And unless there is a large quantity of the material, readings above the background are unlikely. Nevertheless, some older tiles and pottery can be quite radioactive, especially those with an orange-red glaze.
4. Smoke Detectors
Smoke detectors are designed to protect people from fire dangers by sounding an alarm when smoke is present. Most smoke detectors contain a small amount of americium-241, which emits alpha particles. These particles ionize the air, making it conductive. When smoke particles enter the detector, they reduce the current, which sets off the alarm. Although some people are concerned about the radiation emitted by americium-241, smoke detectors are safe when used as directed.
Food contains many naturally occurring radioactive materials. Although the small quantities of food in the home are not detectable by a radiation detector, bulk food shipments have been known to set off alarms. An exception would be low-sodium salt substitutes that often contain enough potassium-40 to double the background count rate of a radiation detector.
Fertilizers may be radioactive due to the presence of potassium and phosphorus. Potassium is a naturally occurring radioactive element, while phosphorus can come from phosphate ore, which often contains elevated levels of uranium. This can make the fertilizer itself radioactive.
7. Antique Devices
Many radioactive products were sold as treatments for various ailments in the early 1900s. These products, which included pills, pads, and solutions containing radium and devices designed to add radon to drinking water, were regulated by individual states. In some cases, states require that these devices be registered or licensed. Most of these products were not harmful, but some contained high levels of radium, which could be dangerous. If there was any doubt about the safety of a product, the public was advised to contact the state radiation-control program for guidance.
There are many items that we use daily that are radioactive. These items include our phones, televisions, and smoke detectors. While the radiation levels from these items are generally low, it is still important to be aware of the potential risks associated with radiation exposure.
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