3H – Tritium

Tritium, radioactive isotope of hydrogen (heavy hydrogen), was discovered by Ernest Rutherford, Mark Oliphant and Paul Harteck in 1934.

In nature, tritium is contained in small amounts and most often forms in the upper atmosphere when nitrogen atoms and cosmic particles collide. Nevertheless, there is also an industrial method for obtaining this element: irradiation by 6Li neutrons in nuclear reactors.

Where is tritium used?

Tritium is used in the manufacture of road light signs. Their inner surface is coated with a luminescent material whose fluorescence is due to bombardment with its beta particles. Tritium signs fluoresce for about 12 years (which is the half-life of tritium) and eventually lose brightness. The glass thickness and luminescent layer fully absorb beta radiation. When tritium road signs are properly treated and disposed in a safe way, there is no danger of radiation.   

In addition, tritium is used in chemistry, biology and geology for various experiments and research efforts. Another tritium application is the power source for illumination of clocks and watches; original luminous charm bracelets and keychains are also filled with small amounts of tritium.

What are the health risks and how to ensure protection against irradiation?

The threat of irradiation exists at enterprises where tritium marks are made. In the absence of proper shielding in the production process, tritium can enter personnel’s respiratory tract or skin.

Since the greatest danger of tritium is when it enters the body, it is necessary to behave very cautiously in the production areas. When working with this isotope, personnel must wear closed clothes, use surgical gloves and apply respiratory protective means.

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