Thursday, April 15, 2004
That Warm, Radioactive Glow! 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Ever heard of "Vaseline Glass"? It's a type of collectible antique glassware that's usually clear or slightly milky yellow (like the petroleum jelly it's named for) or yellow-green, but its most unusual characteristsic is that it glows brilliantly under ultraviolet light. That's because the distinctive color is produced by the introduction of uranium salts into the glass melt - and yes, it is radioactive...the higher the Geiger counter reading, the more you're guaranteed of its authenticity.

There's apparently a large cult market for uranium glass pieces, which range in age from the 19th century to the 1930's - but none more recent, probably because radioactivity got such a bad reputation following the advent of the Bomb - after World War II, "radiation chic" fell out of vogue. You might be familiar with the story of Fiestaware™ pottery, certain types of which were crafted with a sightly radioactive ceramic glaze - while hard to find, the 'hot' pieces are hot collectibles, fetching high prices.

One UK website that sells Vaseline Glass offers certification of Geiger counter readings, which range from about 300 cps for a small Czech candle-shaped tray, to a blazing 8400 cps for an English 19th Century wine glass. That goblet must have put quite the kick in your nightcap. One piece is listed at a whopping 22,600 counts-per-second, but I hope that's a typo; if it were really that 'hot', you'd probably have to handle it with lead gloves. Still, I'm not too convinced it's a great idea to keep radiant collectibles like this in one's china cupboards, much less actually use them.

Radiation became fashionable after Marie Curie's research on the element radium, and one dark night upon returning to her laboratory, she found it filled with an eerie glow. She had discovered that radium-containing compounds glowed brilliantly of their own accord, as the atoms released energy in the visible spectrum in the process of radioactive decay. Although Madame Curie paid for this spectacular discovery with her own early death caused by radiation exposure, the new "miracle substance" made its way into many consumer products, such as watches whose dials glowed in the dark.

One major radium-watch scandal occurred here in Illinois, at the Elgin Watch Company. Remember the fate of the "Radium Girls," the poor souls who used to paint glow-in-the-dark patches on clocks and watches? Luminous paint used back then contained hazardous radium salts instead of today's safer glowing alternatives like zinc compounds or phosphorus, and the radium workers often had a habit of "pointing" the brushes in their lips to obtain finer paint lines.

The results included dreadful skin ulcerations and cancers, corneal cataracts and tumors of the mouth, jaw and neck. Rather than being recognized as radiation sickness, these maladies were often incorrectly diagnosed as advanced syphilis and venereal disease by doctors who felt that these women, who shunned traditional roles by working in factories, must undoubtedly have loose morals. A shameful era, no doubt...but I still think "The Radium Girls" would make a cracking name for a rock band, or a blog.

Better than "Phossy Jaw."

If you're curious, here's the University of Chicago's official training page for radiation safety. So, just how dangerous is radiation exposure? On this page you'll find a small chart that lists some examples of activities that carry a one-in-a-million risk of killing you. They include:
Smoking 1.4 cigarettes (lung cancer)
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter
Spending 2 days in New York City (air pollution)
Driving 40 miles in a car (accident)
Flying 2500 miles in a jet (accident)
Receiving 10 mRem of radiation (cancer)
Most of these make sense, like the fact that breathing New York City air for 2 days can possibly kill you - a rather disturbing little statistic. On the other hand, I am thoroughly confused about how eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter carries a 1-in-a-million risk of death. How? By aflatoxin-induced cancer? Allergic reaction? Clogged arteries? Constipation?

Do you have to eat all 40 tablespoons at once?