Answer to Question #7667 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
Category: Historical Issues/Applications
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
No, touching or being near would pose little or no risk, even if they were coated with radium. Today many watches using luminous displays are not radioactive. However, older watches may very well have been coated with a radioactive substance, such as radium or tritium. The hazard from tritium is almost nonexistent, but the radium dials were particularly hazardous to the workers who actually ingested the radium back in the 20s and 30s, as they sharpened the brushes with their mouths. The radium-dial workers is a tragic epidemiological story which actually led to the development of radiation protection standards. Even then, the primary hazard was from the ingestion of the radium, not the external exposure.
The easiest thing to do would be to survey the watch parts with a radiation survey meter. Most health physicists, your state radiation control agency, your hospital nuclear medicine department, or the radiation safety officer at any site that possesses radioactive material would have access to such instrumentation. I am sure they would be more than willing to check out the watches!
An interesting website that discusses luminous dials and cites other interesting websites, including how to identify some of the watches from the manufacturers' markings, is the Elgin website.
Orhan H. Suleiman, MS, PhD