Consumer Products Containing Radioactive Substances: Use or Refuse?

Radioactivity was discovered recently when, in 1896, French scientist Antoine Henri Becquerel noticed that photographic films, which were in one roll with uranium salts, and which have not the slightest access of light, turned out to be ignited. It was found that there is such a phenomenon as the spontaneous emission of rays by a chemical element due to the decay of its nuclei. In another way and in one word we can say radioactivity.

However, the fact of discovery does not mean that the phenomenon did not exist earlier. Man, like everything else in the world, is constantly under the influence of natural (throughout the entire time of biological evolution) or artificial (over the past 100 years) radiation. Cosmic radiation, solar radiation, radiation from a number of chemical elements contained in soil and rocks, is constantly with us. This is natural radiation. «Radiation is a fact of life. We live in a world in which radiation is naturally present everywhere. Light and heat from nuclear reactions in the Sun are essential to our existence. Radioactive materials occur naturally throughout the environment, and our bodies contain radioactive materials such as carbon-14, potassium-40 and polonium-210 quite naturally. All life on Earth has evolved in the presence of this radiation», IAEA Radiation, People and the Environment Review Report (2004) states.

Atlas of Natural Radioactivity in Europe

As the authors of the Atlas of Natural Radioactivity of Europe note, «The public is mainly concerned about artificial radiation, especially associated with nuclear facilities, however, of course, natural radiation has the greatest impact». Moreover, natural radionuclides, to a greater or lesser extent, are found in food and drinks. Bananas, Brazil nuts, beer, etc. are the record holders among food products regarding radionuclide content. However, this is normal and does not pose any danger.

In addition to natural radiation, there is also artificial or man-made radiation associated with human in a certain way. Usually, when we talk about man-made exposure, we mean either man-made increased exposure from rock dumps, during uranium, coal mining, manufacture of fertilizers, porcelain, etc., and emergency exposure that humanity has encountered during the Chornobyl NPP or at Fukushima-Daiichi accidents associated with significant accidents with subsequent radioactive contamination of the environment, but this is not all that one should know about man-made radiation. In fact, there are significantly more man-made radiation sources and often they are much closer than we think. «Artificial sources include medical X rays, fallout from the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, discharges of radioactive waste from the nuclear industry, industrial gamma rays, and miscellaneous items such as consumer products», IAEA Radiation, People and the Environment Review Report (2004) states.

Man-made radionuclides can also be found in food. In Ukraine, in particular, due to the Chornobyl accident, a significant amount of reactor radionuclides, including those with a very long half-life, got into the environment, so they are still hazardous and will be hazardous for many years. They can get into food products, which, due to their content, can pose a threat to human health, therefore, the content of these radionuclides is controlled at the legislative level.



90Sr (Bq/kg, Bq/l) 

137Cs (Bq/kg, Bq/l) 


Bread, bakery products 








Vegetables (leafy roots, table greens) 








Meat and meat products 





Fish and fish products  




Milk and dairy products 




Eggs (in one egg) 








Condensed and concentrated milk 




Milk powder 




Fresh wild berries and mushrooms 




Dried wild berries and mushrooms 




Medicinal plants 




Other products 




Special baby food 



Permissible levels of 137Cs and 90Sr radionuclides in food and drinking water (DR-2006).

We usually think a little about the fact that there are a number of consumer products containing radioactive substances. Of course, now nobody would add, for example, radium to paint for Christmas tree decorations or skin care products, but this was not always so. Some of the things that pose a danger may lie for years in old dusty suitcases in the grandmother’s wardrobes.

So, flipping through the pages of archival magazines, or simply «traveling by Google», we can find advertising publications of the first decades of the twentieth century about radioactive miracles, like toothpaste containing thorium (it should provide everyone who used it with a snow-white smile, reliable protection against all bacteria, and at the same time provide with an unprecedented vivacity and energy). Ladies and young ladies tried to preserve beauty and youth thanks to an amazing cream or lipstick with this radionuclide, and radium was considered an extremely useful component of the recipe for a new chocolate bar.

Radioactivity was in fashion. However, fortunately, most of the radioactive miracles were too expensive to conquer the mass market. However, history has preserved the information for us about some of them.

Drinking solution «”Standard” Radium Solution», produced in Pittsburgh, USA in 1915-1925.

So, in particular, doctors advised to drink the content of one such bottle every time after a meal. By the way, it contained 2 μg of radium-226, which during decay, saturated the water with life-giving radon. It was radon, to protect against which special programs are now being introduced all over the world. Although it should be noted that in the Alpine mountains, people continue to enjoy radon baths in underground lakes.

Radioactive healing water «Radithor» was sold in the USA in 1918-1928.

Toothpaste «Doramad» containing thorium was produced in Germany during 1920-1945.

Advertising of toothpaste «Doramad»

Advertising of face cream «Tho-Radia» containing 0.5% thorium chloride and 0.25% radium bromide. The trade mark was registered in 1932, and such a cream could be purchased up to the 1960s.

Manufacturers «made people happy» with such a curiosity not only in developed European countries or the USA, but even in the USSR, where, it seemed, citizens should first of all build communism, and not waste time and resources on caring for body and face. People did not just believe in the power of the new miracle, they were convinced of this, and even the advertisement of the popular Borjomi water contained a sign of radiation until the mid-60s.

The era of fashion for radioactivity ended as soon as people realized that what should heal, rejuvenate, and improve, in fact, did not do that, moreover, it posed a direct danger to life and health. One of the loudest scandals associated with the use of radionuclides in consumer products was associated with the United States Radium Corporation in Orange (USA) , where during 1917-1926, workers marked the dials of clocks with paint containing radium, from time to time wetting the brushes with their own saliva (a common bad habit of many artists), which led to serious health problems, and later to a trial and life-long payments to victims, which the employer undertook to pay. It should be said, it was not a single case. Something similar happened in Germany at clock factories…

Now everyone understands that radiation sources and radioactive materials require special management, controlled access to them. Special institutions responsible for this were established at the state and international levels. All available radiation sources should be clearly accounted, rules for management of different radioactive waste resulting from the use of radiation sources in medicine, science, industry, etc. should be regulated. Although in world practice, there were cases when control over radiation sources was lost and this had fatal consequences for people. Perhaps, the most revealing and tragic case of incorrect management of radiation sources occurred in Goiânia, Brazil in 1987.

In Ukraine, programs for the inventory of radiation sources are being implemented under support of foreign partners, a program to exempt persons from criminal liability upon voluntary surrender of radiation sources is in force, and we hope that the number of lost radiation sources will be minimized.

Radiation in Everyday Life and Where to Look for It

However, not only radiation sources and a number of mentioned consumer products from the past contain radionuclides. In some of them, the very radioactive component provides its functionality or improves it, in others, radioactivity is caused by the content of natural radioactive substances. Do not forget that even now you can buy goods containing radioactive substances, however, you may have a much larger list of them at home. They are inherited from our grandparents.

Old TV sets and monitors: up-to-date flat screen TV sets and monitors do not use cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and therefore do not emit radiation. However, the same cannot be said for the old models known to most of us from childhood. CRTs generated X-rays, whose power, however, did not pose a significant risk to health at a distance of more than 2 m.

Smoke detectors: about 80% of standard smoke detectors contain some share of a radioactive isotope (mainly americium-241 and in old Soviet RID-1 detectors – plutonium-239), which emits alpha and beta radiation. The isotope is reliably isolated and does not pose a danger to life and health if used properly, but it should not be thrown away with household waste and moreover disassembled by yourself.

Photographic equipment:lens glass of some cameras produced mainly by Kodak, Canon, GAF, Takumar, Yasinon, Flektogon, Minolta, ROKKOR, ZUIKO during the 1950s-1970s contains thorium-232. This component allows a high refractive index while maintaining low dispersion.

It was calculated , that a professional photographer working with this equipment receives 3600 µR in 12 hours, and not 120, which would be obtained using a different, safer lens. If you use such a camera not on a regular basis, but only for a few shots, for example, per month, such a camera does not threaten human life and health.

List of photographic lenses with lenses containing thorium:

Canon FD 17mm f/4
Canon FD 35mm f/2.0 (versions from the early 1970’s)
Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical (Measured at 46532 CPM @ front element )
Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 55mm f1.4 (measured at 2360 nSv/h)
Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f1.8 «Zebra»
Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 «Zebra» “(Only P6 mount version )
Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 50mm f4 «Zebra» “(Only P6 mount version )
Focal (Kmart store brand) 35mm f/2.8
Fujica Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 non-EBC(Measured at 35137 CPM @ back element )
Fujica Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 EBC
GAF Anscomatic 38mm f/2.8 (GAF Anscomatic 726 camera)
Industar 61 L/Z MC (L is for Lanthanum — radioactive element)
Kodak Aero-Ektars (various models)
Kodak Ektanon 4-inch Projection Lens f/3.5
Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 (early variant with thorium glass elements)
Olympus Zuiko Auto-S 1:1,2/55 mm (first version with thorium glass elements)
Olympus Zuiko Auto-S 1:1,4/50 mm (only first version «Silvernose» is Radioactive)
Pentax Super Takumar 35mm f/2 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Pentax Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (Asahi Optical Co.)
SMC Takumar 35mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Super Takumar 35mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (Only latest Version 2)
Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.)
SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Super Takumar 55mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
SMC Takumar 55mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
SMC Takumar 85mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Super Takumar 6×7 105mm f2.4 (Asahi Optical Co.)
Steinheil Auto-Quinon 55mm f/1.9 KE mount
Topcor RE GN 50/1.4 (Lanthanum glass)
Topcor UV 50mm f/2
Yashinon-DS 50mm f1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 680 nSv/h)
Yashinon-DS 50mm f1.7 (Yashica) (Measured at 762 nSv/h)
Yashinon-DX 50mm f/1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 1359 nSv/h)
Yashinon-DS-M 50mm f/1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 572 nSv/h)
Yashinon-DS-M 50mm f/1.7 (Yashica) (Measured at 798 nSv/h)
Yashinon-DS-M 55mm f/1.2 (Yashica) (Measured at 1056 nSv/h)
Yashinon 55mm f1.2 (Tomioka) (Measured at 981 nSv/h)
Leitz Wetzlar Summicron 5cm f2 (M39)
Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9
Voigtlander 50mm Nokton Prominent
Zenitar-M 50mm f1.7 (Lanthanum glass)-

According to

Pottery: ceramic ware and tiles may contain natural uranium, thorium and potassium. This is especially true for the glaze of some colors. Usually the amount of radioactive substances in it is small and does not pose a serious danger, however, it should be taken into account that beautiful glazed dishes, especially antique or homemade ones, are more suitable for admiring than for using in the kitchen. In particular, potters from Kosiv do not advise to use their tableware for daily use. Moreover, old Fiesta Ware goods, especially red-glazed and made from 1936 to 1972, most likely contain uranium oxide. Acidic food on such dishes can react with radioactive substances in the glaze, and later, these radioactive substances from the glaze, along with food, will enter the human gastrointestinal tract.

Glass: some glassware, especially yellowish or greenish, it is also called «vaseline» or «canary», made with the addition of uranium oxide or sodium uranate. If you direct ultraviolet light at such glass, it will shine beautifully, which is especially appreciated by collectors. Such glass was used to make not only dishes, but also decorations and figurines. However, not only «vaseline» glass can contain radioactive substances. The radiation of uranium glass is recorded even by a household dosimeter. Radiation rate depends on what part and what kind of uranium component is included in the glass melt. If its share is up to 6%, then the product will generate gamma radiation, slightly higher than the natural background, and beta radiation exceeding the standard values by dozens of times. It should be also noted that table and jewelry crystal can contain uranium admixtures and even ordinary glass can contain a significant amount of potassium-40 or thorium-232.

Granite countertops, fireplaces, stairs and window sills: granite itself is a source of natural radiation. It contains uranium and thorium found in magma, which, finally, forms granite. Granite from different deposits can have different radioactivity levels. Experts divide natural granite into 5 groups according to radioactivity levels. Material with a high radioactivity level is not used in any way, material with a lower level is used for road construction and underground structures, and the safest one is used to construct and decorate residential premises and products used in them. The Radiation Safety Standards of Ukraine sets acceptable activity levels for residential premises, roads and use of outside settlements, and this should in no way be neglected.

Facing tiles:facing tiles, which line floors and walls of a bathroom or kitchen, can also pose a radiation hazard. The reason for this is the clay of which it is made. If the radiation background of a clay deposit is high or contains natural radioactive admixtures, then products made of it will be radiation hazardous. To be sure that your tiles are of high quality, it is better to ask the seller for relevant documents for the goods.

Mineral fertilizers: mineral fertilizers: can be radioactive due to their potassium content, which itself is radioactive, or phosphorus, which can be obtained from phosphate ore containing uranium. During processing of phosphate ore into phosphate fertilizers, there is a risk that the final product will contain a certain amount of radium-226, which, after being used, can ultimately be found in vegetables.

Sometimes, waste from thermal power plants operating on coal and wood waste is used to regulate the acid-alkaline balance of arable soils. The issue is that in these ash and slag the concentration of radioactive substances in comparison with the initial fuel usually increases. After incineration, almost all isotopes of the uranium-radium and thorium groups present in the initial coal remain in the ash; in general, ash and slag is classified as very low-level radioactive waste.

Another way to use the resulting ash is to add it to the building mixtures, and if not to control it, the situation may not be very optimistic.

Clocks, aircraft instruments, marine clocks, etc.: in Soviet times, a lot of alarm clocks were produced, as well as aviation (AChS type), military, marine clocks marked with radioactive illuminating substance – a persistent luminescence material, predominantly, containing radium-226, which caused the glow of another component of the illuminating mixture: zinc sulfide. They were extremely popular… These clocks, as you know, were used not only in armored vehicles, on aircraft boards or in captain’s cabins, but also in ordinary living rooms, study rooms, bedrooms and even children’s rooms. Over time, the radioactive illuminating mixture in them became fragile, it crumbled, thereby increasing the risk of hazardous impact on the body.

Wristwatches: some wristwatches, especially old models of the Ural, Kama, Pobeda, Sportivnyie brands, etc. whose dials have components glowing in the dark, contain a small amount of tritium or promethium-147, watches manufactured before 1970 may contain radium-226. To prevent particles of hazardous paint from getting on your skin or into respiratory tract, it is better not to try to remove the protective glass from the dial.

USSR Christmas tree decorations: from 1940 to 1950, a persistent luminescence material was used not only in the military sphere or to manufacture clocks. Despite the hazard from radiation, it was actively used even to paint Christmas tree decorations. A lot of illumination mixture was used to paint Christmas tree decorations, so the equivalent dose rate could reach tens of microroentgens per hour. It, unlike the dials of watches, was not protected by anything, it crumbled, and therefore fell on the hands, got in the gastrointestinal tract, in the respiratory tract. Further, due to the decay of radium-226, radon-222 accumulated in the room, other dangerous gases including polonium-210 were generated. Considering that in winter, not everyone was in a hurry to ventilate the room, the hazard level increased.

Compasses: Adrianov compasses were perhaps the most common in the former USSR. In them (especially in earlier samples), the markings and the end of the magnetic needle were covered with a persistent luminescence material containing by-products of chemical purification of natural uranium, mainly based on radium-226 compounds. Since this model had a not tight casing, radioactive dust could spill out. There are also models where radioactive paint is simply applied to the surface of an unprotected casing. The natural background in them is exceeded by 10 – 500 times. The dose rate of some specimens exceeds 5000 μR/h.

«Exit» signs, trinkets glowing in the dark:persistent luminescence material with radium is not used now, the use of radio-containing paint is prohibited, and the current persistent luminescence material contains tritium – a radioactive hydrogen isotope, which is considered safer, but more difficult to obtain and quite expensive – its price reaches $ 30,000 per gram. However, you should still be careful with goods, in which it is used, because pieces of a tritium-containing mixture can flake off, crumble and contaminate the premises where they are located.

Some «Exit» signs in public places contain radioactive gas tritium, due to which they can glow in the dark without electricity. Tritium emits beta particles, which cause glowing of the light-emitting compound. These signs are not hazardous, but should not be thrown away as normal household waste.

Fluorescent lamps: starters of some fluorescent lamps contain a small cylindrical bulb containing at least 15 nanocuries of krypton-85, beta and gamma emitters with a half-life of 10.4 years. A fluorescent lamp is safe as long as it is intact and not broken.

Precious and semi-precious stones:some of natural precious and semi-precious stones, such as zircon, are radioactive themselves. Another potentially hazardous mineral is charoite. It can be radioactive due to its thorium and uranium content. One of the signs of possible increased radioactive background is dark or even black inclusions in the stone, so if you have products with charoite, it is better to show them to an expert. Neutron irradiation – the so-called «neutron refinement of stones» is also used in to enhance the color of stones, in particular – beryl, tourmaline, topaz and others. This should not be neglected, because jewelry usually contacts with skin. In order to reduce the harmful effect of such jewelry, usually the stones after neutron refinement are stored for some time before being sold, but not all manufacturers inform buyers that the raw materials were improved in this way, the information about this is not always indicated on the labels and in certificates of precious stones. Therefore, to be sure of the safety of your own jewelry, gemologists should check them.

Dental crowns and veneers: even before the 1980s, to make porcelain crowns and veneers shining and white, dental technicians added some natural uranium and metal oxides to the dental porcelain mixture. This technology was patented back in 1942, and although later natural uranium was replaced with depleted uranium, cesium was also added to mixture composition. Such products significantly exposed the oral cavity. Currently, this technology is not used.

Cat litter is one of the most radioactive items in your home. Its main component is bentonite clay, which contains traces of natural uranium and is therefore potentially hazardous. A researcher from the Oak Ridge Laboratory estimates that American consumers buy 22.680 kg of uranium and 54.430 kg of thorium annually in cat litter.

Coated magazine paper: kaolin, which contains radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, is often used to add gloss to magazine paper, but their amount is so small that it cannot cause any harm.

Chornobyl antiques are a challenge that largely concerns Ukraine. Due to the Chornobyl accident, a significant part of things of cultural, historical or simply material value were contaminated with radionuclides, sometimes so much that, without exaggeration, turned into radioactive waste. Due to the spread of stalking and other negative post-Chornobyl phenomena, things from Chornobyl can be found on antique and spontaneous markets. Buyers, and often sellers, are unaware of the hazard they pose.

Gas lamps are an issue that is not quite typical for Ukraine, but it is still relevant in some European towns. Some casing of street gas lamps generate light by heating thorium-232, but when not used as the primary light source, they do not pose a significant hazard to health.

What to Do with This? Expert Comments

 Fortunately, radioactivity is not in fashion already. However, «Strangely, there are people who deliberately collect things that contain radioactive substances», Head of the SSTC NRS Emergency Preparedness and Radiation Monitoring Department Yuliia Balashevska says. The expert notes: «I would like to warn our readers and remind them that it is better not to do this. We also do not recommend buying anything on the flea markets, where, without planning or hoping, you can purchase a radiation source and get in trouble. If there are doubts about the radiation hazard of certain items, it is better to call the State Emergency Service, where they can advise on what to do with these items. We all know that when a mercury thermometer breaks in a room, this is a problem, but, for example, a clock with radium in the room is not less problem. We know about the hazard of mercury since childhood, but we cannot even guess about the hazard of radioactive substances that may be contained in household items».

It is also very important to avoid the use of radioactive construction materials. Therefore, if you are planning a renovation in residential premises, in any case do not neglect the issues of radiation monitoring of natural stone, ceramic tiles, etc. Yuliia Balashevska notes: «Natural construction materials are classified according to the effective radioactivity level for a reason. If some materials are intended for outdoor decoration or, for example, to cover street paths, then in no case they should be used indoors, especially in residential premises, because in 99% of cases, this means that the content of natural radionuclides there is higher than in natural materials, which can be used for indoor activities».

Maybe, after reading this, you will review the grandmother’s Christmas tree decorations in the attic and will not, even with the most sentimental feelings, hang decorations glowing without light on the Christmas tree, or finally give the old clock and compass to experts responsible for the management of such things. When you select materials for renovation, ask sellers about the relevant certificates, and if you find a suspicious metal object in an abandoned workshop of an inactive plant, at least call the police, and do not carry it to the scrap metal collection point.

Working on the topic, we understood how important it is, because next to each of us, next to dear people, potentially hazardous things can be. Our goal was to warn readers and call for vigilance, because the human body is in no way able to feel radiation effects, except for too high doses, when a light metallic taste appears in the mouth, and the nose starts to feel the smell of ozone. So, if any object that is in your home, in the yard or somewhere is suspicious for you in terms of radioactivity, do not hesitate to contact experts, because it is your vigilance that can save the life and health of not only you, but also other people.

«Now we can say that radiation is an element already suppressed: we have put it into a certain framework, we know a lot about it and can control it in a certain way, even generate it, but it should be remembered that «suppression» does not mean «no hazard». Only control and wise use will save you from harm. Speaking about radioactivity in everyday life, I want to remind you that, first of all, we should take care of ourselves», Yuliia Balashevska sums up. Editorial Board