Radium dial watches, a potentially hazardous legacy?

Gillmore, Gavin K, Crockett, Robin, Denman, Tony, Flowers, Alan and Harris, Richard (2012) Radium dial watches, a potentially hazardous legacy? Environment International, 45, pp. 91-98. ISSN (print) 0160-4120


This study re-examines the risk to health from radium ((226)Ra) dial watches. Ambient dose equivalent rates have been measured for fifteen pocket watches giving results of up to 30μSvh(-1) at a distance of 2cm taken with a series 1000 mini-rad from the front face (arithmetic mean ambient dose equivalent for pocket watches being 13.2μSvh(-1)). A pocket compass gave rise to a similar ambient dose equivalent rate, of 20μSvh(-1), to the pocket watches, with its cover open. Eighteen wristwatches have also been assessed, but their dose rates are generally much lower (the arithmetic mean being 3.0μSvh(-1)), although the highest ambient dose equivalent rate noted was 20μSvh(-1). A phantom experiment using a TLD suggested an effective dose equivalent of 2.2mSv/y from a 1μCi (37kBq) radium dial worn for 16h/day throughout the year (dose rate 0.375μSvh(-1)). For this condition we estimated maximum skin dose for our pocket watches as 16mSv per year, with effective doses of 5.1mSv and 1.169mSv when worn in vest and trouser pockets respectively. This assumes exposure from the back of the watch which is generally around 60-67% of that from the front. The maximum skin dose from a wristwatch was 14mSv, with 4.2mSv effective dose in vest pocket. Radium ((226)Ra) decays to the radioactive gas radon ((222)Rn), and atmospheric radon concentration measurements taken around a pocket watch in a small sealed glass sphere recorded 18,728Bqm(-3). All watches were placed in a room with a RAD7 real-time radon detector. Radon concentration average was 259±9Bqm(-3) over 16h, compared to background average over 24h of 1.02Bqm(-3). Over 6weeks highs of the order of 2000Bqm(-3) were routinely recorded when the heating/ventilation system in the room was operating at reduced rates, peaking at over 3000Bqm(-3) on several occasions. Estimates of the activity of (226)Ra in the watches ranged from 0.063 to 1.063μCi (2.31 to 39.31kBq) for pocket watches and from 0.013 to 0.875μCi (0.46 to 32.38kBq) for wrist watches. The risk from old watches containing radium appears to have been largely forgotten today. This paper indicates a health risk, particular to collectors, but with knowledge and appropriate precautions the potential risks can be reduced.

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