Answer to Question #11704 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
Category: Radiation Basics — Radiation Shielding
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
I was at the estate sale of the home of a now-deceased doctor who had books on radiology and interventional radiology, and I found a small, heavy, cylindrical container in the kitchen for sale. Not knowing what it was when I bought it, I took it home. My boyfriend pointed out it looks like a lead pig used to contain radioactive samples. What is the safest way to handle this apart from finding a Geiger counter and determining if it is radioactive?
The container you have may well be a lead pig that had been used to store a relatively small radioactive source that might have been used either by the doctor to whom you refer or by a hospital or other facility with whom the doctor worked. Since you provided no additional information that could shed more light on the past or present contents of the container, we cannot make any firm judgment as to the extent, if any, of any radioactivity associated with the container.
I assume that you have likely looked in the container to ascertain whether it holds anything. Whether or not there is anything visible in the container, I would recommend that you not handle the container further or its contents until it has been shown to present no health concern. (Even a container that appears to hold nothing, but that had been used to store a source of radioactive material, could be contaminated with material from the source.) While I believe it is unlikely that the container and/or its contents represent a significant radiation health concern, in the interest of due caution I would recommend that you keep the container closed and keep it well removed from people (at least a couple of meters away) until it has been evaluated.
There are a few possibilities for getting the container appropriately surveyed by a knowledgeable individual. You could contact a representative of the radiation control program in your state; here is a link to appropriate contacts available through the Conference of Radiation Control Program Directors. If this is not possible or convenient for some reason, another option would be to contact the radiation safety office of a university that would be accessible to you and inquire whether they might be able to assist you in evaluating the container. A third option would be to contact the nuclear medicine department of a hospital in the area and inquire as to whether they could assist you in surveying the container; this might be more likely fruitful if you could identify a hospital with which the doctor might have maintained a professional affiliation.
George Chabot, PhD