Category: NORM

05 Jan 2022

Top 3 Consumer Products that Contain Radioactive Materials

Radioactive materials are present in our natural environment and in man-made products we use every day. Such consumer products are defined as “a device or manufactured item into which radionuclides have deliberately been incorporated or produced by activation, or which generates ionizing radiation, and which can be sold or made available to members of the public without special surveillance or regulatory control after sale.”

Many devices that use WiFi or Bluetooth technology or connect to cell phone towers emit radio waves, also known as electromagnetic radiation (EMF).

This may concern consumers who are worried about the negative health effects associated with “radioactive materials” and “radiation.” However, in most cases, these materials we interact with are safe and pose no danger to our health.

Below we guide you through three common consumer products the average person uses or engages with regularly, discuss how the radioactive materials they contain work, and determine the health risk they pose to you and your family.

Cell Phones

Cell phones have become an integral part of daily modern life. We depend on them for communication, connection, and as a source of entertainment. However, their permanent presence and increased usage have raised concerns over the years that cell phones can cause negative health effects to humans, including brain tumors and hearing loss.

pile of cell phones

Do cell phones emit radiation?

Cell phones are not consumer products that contain radioactive materials. However, they communicate by transmitting EMF, a type of non-ionizing radiation at the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum in the 100kHz to 300GHz frequency range.

RFs are widely used in communication technologies such as cell phones, Wi-Fi, radio, and TV. They are also found in MRI equipment, from natural sources like outer space, and in the microwave oven sitting on your kitchen counter.

Are there health risks?

Decades of research on RF radiation have concluded that exposure to this frequency has minimal health effects. Due to their frequency, RF radiation can be absorbed by the human body. In large amounts, this can produce heat, which has the potential to cause burns or tissue damage.

Numerous short-term studies have taken place on the link between cancer rates and cell phone usage. Small, individual studies have found slight associations between cell phones and cancer of the salivary glands, as well as a possible increase in the risk of gliomas. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated these studies and concluded that there is limited or inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity. Longer-term studies may need to be conducted to accurately determine the level of cancer risk associated with cell phones.

Those uncomfortable with incurring any level of risk can take steps to limit their cell phone usage by purchasing a hands-free headset or utilizing the speakerphone function when making calls.

Smoke Detectors

Most smoke detectors in the United States are ionization smoke alarms, which contain a small amount of the man-made radioactive element called americium-241.

how smoke alarms work

Why is radioactive material present?

Ionization smoke alarms are more responsive to flaming fires. The radioactive material present in the smoke alarm rests between two electrically charged plates which ionize the air and causes a current between them. Smoke entering the chamber disrupts the flow of ions, reducing the current and thereby activating the alarm.

Are there health risks?

Smoke detectors pose little to no health risk to human beings. The amount of americium-241 present is minimal, wrapped in gold foil, and shielded by the plastic case and stainless steel. These protective measures prevent easy tampering rather than limiting radiation exposure. However, there is no risk of significant exposure as long as these sources are contained in the detector housing.

Granite Countertops

Like many natural materials found on Earth, granite, a type of durable stone used in construction and home décor, contains small amounts of radioactivity.

Granite is a consumer product that contains a small amount of natural radioactive material.

Does granite emit radiation?

Trace elements of uranium, thorium, and radium can show up in slabs of granite. When these elements are present, they decay into radon. According to the EPA, radon released from granite materials can be released over the lifetime of its use but is typically diluted by ventilation.

Are there health risks?

It is extremely unlikely that the radiation emitted from granite countertops in your home would increase radiation doses above normal background levels. The radon released from granite is a significantly lower concern when compared with radon which originates in the soil and can build up inside the home. This type of radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States and should be tested for on a regular basis.

Conclusion: Are Consumer Products That Contain Radioactive Materials or Emit Radition Unsafe?

It is true that some common consumer products contain trace amounts of naturally occurring radioactive materials or emit non-ionizing radiation. However, this does not mean they are dangerous or pose a health risk to humans. In fact, in products like ionizing smoke detectors, the presence of radioactive material is crucial for keeping humans safe.

Further Reading:

Radiation Safety for Consumer Products, Specific Safety Guide No. SSG-36

10 Sep 2021
Ore mining

What is Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material?

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) are just that: materials of natural origin that contain radioactive materials. NORM is found in rock formations, soil, and sand that come out of the Earth’s crust and mantle. This includes elements like radium, uranium, thorium, and potassium, as well as their decay products radium and radon. Many of these elements show up in concentrated areas, like uranium ore bodies, which are then mined for human use.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines NORM as “materials that contain any of the primordial radionuclides or radioactive elements… that are undisturbed as a result of human activity.”

Cosmogenic NORM, or cosmic radiation produced by cosmic rays interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere, affects frequent flyers and those who live at higher altitudes.

Learn more about background radiation in our blog post here.

According to the IAEA, the activity concentrations of the radionuclides found in these places are generally low and not considered to be a risk to human health and safety.

Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM)

Human activities such as extraction and processing can expose, disturb, or concentrate NORM. Bringing natural resources from below the ground—in a solid, liquid, gas, or sludge form—and introducing it to the surface brings up the materials that contain radionuclides. When something like this happens, NORM is classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials or TENORM.

pile of raw coal

It can also concentrate it in some cases. For example, coal-ash, a byproduct of burning coal, contains a higher concentration of NORM than it did when it was mined from the ground. As ash only accounts for about 10% of the weight of unburned coal, the resulting NORM is 10x that of the plant’s coal fuel.

Industries that generate TENORM include:

  • Mining (hard rock/metal, rare earths, uranium, copper, alumina)
  • Energy (oil and gas, coal, fracking)
  • Water treatment (drinking water, wastewater, fish hatcheries)
  • Consumer products (fertilizer, cigarettes, granite countertops, bricks/building materials)
  • Recycling

Region and geology are major factors in the amount of radioactivity and materials such processes can introduce into the environment. When these materials are exposed or concentrated because of industrial processes, humans are exposed to the ionizing radiation they give off. This can result in potential health risks including cancer.

Regulating NORM/TENORM

Radiation levels from NORM are not considered hazardous in the United States.  Therefore, it is not regulated at the federal level.

TENORM is also not regulated by the federal government or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It is up to individual states if and how they choose to regulate generation and disposal. Currently, there are 37 Agreement States which regulate NORM within their borders. There is little consistency among different industries and countries regarding NORM. Contact your state’s radiation management branch for more information.

How to Minimize TENORM Exposure

From a radiation safety perspective, some precautions can be taken by professionals and the public to ensure minimal exposure to these radioactive materials. The level of exercised caution ultimately depends on the type of TENORM present. In general, TENORM should be handled only by individuals familiar with radiation safety practices and hazardous industrial substances. Other steps to take include:

  • Implementing a radiation safety program
  • Using appropriate shielding, HEPA filters, and personal protective equipment as necessary
  • Minimizing time spent around TENORM
  • Avoiding eating or drinking around TENORM
  • Minimizing activities like cutting or grinding which can generate dust containing TENORM
  • Properly disposing of TENORM-contaminated waste

Permits

THE PERMISSION SYSTEM FOR INVENTORY TRACKING, MACHINE MANAGEMENT & EQUIPMENT CATALOG MODULES

Permit Profile

Each permit has a dedicated profile of information that includes authorized personnel, radioactive material, machines, and devices. Permit conditions, completed audits, and forms are also found on this profile.

Authorized Condition Database

Create and view authorized conditions included on permits. Previously created authorized conditions are listed with their code, category, and description.

Permit Enforcement

Information specified on a permit not only serves as a record of that permit, but also controls what can be added to other modules. The location, owner and type of radioactive materials, machines, and equipment can be enforced by permits.

Permit Audits

Perform permit audits, mail the results to relevant personnel, and track responses to non-compliances.