Crafting may be a staple of Steampunk's DIY culture, but as Jane Vogelein explains, it's definitely not the safest pastime that any forward-thinking cultural throwback could enjoy. Well, unless they had a hazmat suit handy.
As many of you know, I make Steampunk Jewelry for fun and sometimes profit. I buy old watch parts off of eBay, glue them together into new and interesting shapes, and make them into pins and necklaces and earrings. Back in October, I won an auction that contained a bunch of old military watch faces. When they arrived, I looked them over, and after fiddling with them for a bit, and even preparing some of them to be made into jewelry, I noticed that several of them had greenish paint on their numerals. Huh, I thought. I'll bet that's the infamous radium paint I've heard so much about. I didn't pay it much mind. After Googling a bit, I decided they were probably risky, so I segregated the suspect faces into a plastic bag and stuck them inside an Altoids box.
Upon further investigation, though, an Altoids box turned out to be not enough protection:
The faces that I thought were hot were really hot. So hot that the Radiation Safety Officer took them away to be disposed of in their own separate landfill. We surveyed my entire batch of watch parts and found a bunch more faces and parts — plain metal parts the casual observer would never suspect — were also radioactive. Old movements that probably had radium faces on them — but without the faces, there was no way to tell. Tiny wristwatch hands with a pinhead-sized dab of paint on them turned out to be just as hot as some of the full-sized faces. Faces with so much of the paint flaked off of them that you could barely see the numerals on them showed as being hot... How hot? Not spent-uranium hot. Not enough to harm you unless you swallowed one of the radium dials or duct-taped it to your forehead and left it there for a few years. Casual contact would probably not do you much harm; even a an inch or two away from the hot pieces, the meter only picked up background radiation. The non-radium watch faces that had been in the same auction as the radium faces initially showed as hot, but when run under the faucet for thirty seconds returned to normal background levels, because all the radium paint-dust was washed off. Metal that had been in contact with the hot faces was also largely fine: after I pried the hot movement off of a pin-back, the pin-back registered as normal. Still — radium has a half-life of 1600 years, so it's not like it's going to go away anytime soon. Far better safe than sorry.
Admit it; now you're beginning to worry about all of your retrofitted jewelry. Vogelein goes on to explain more about the dangers of radium paint, and also who to contact if you're worried about the hotness of something you own, but admit it: You always knew there were hidden dangers of steampunk crafting, didn't you?
Steampunk Crafter Public Service Announcement [JanerBlog]