I have been collecting rocks, minerals, and fossils for maybe 16-18 years now, but in short bursts, typically during and after trips to natural history museums, and national parks out west. My collection is small, but now a lot larger, thanks to last weekend’s NY/NJ rock and gem show.
There were a few items I wanted but couldn’t find at a reasonable price at the show, so I looked online. I looked at my bookmarked sites and then turned to Ebay.
I bid on a couple of items and then saw that one of my new favorite sellers listed a beautifully crystallized piece of green torbenite. That seems to an alternate spelling for torbernite. Don’t worry, I had never heard of this mineral before either, all I know is that it looked great and I wanted to bid on it.
Since I was completely unfamiliar with this mineral, I did a Google search, something I hadn’t done before winning an auction for another mineral from this seller (Hemimorphite).
Anyways, so here’s what my Google search revealed about torbernite:
Wikipedia says that torbernite is a radioactive, hydrated green copper uranyl phosphate mineral, found in granites and other uranium-bearing deposits as a secondary mineral. Uh, what? It’s radioactive?! The page also describes how proper safety precautions are needed to handle and store torbernite specimens.
MinDat says that torbernite contains uranium and that you should always wash hands after handling, avoid breathing in dust when handling or breaking, to avoid prolonged exposure in proximity of the body, and to store away from inhabited areas.
It looks like there’s not a lot of risk of uranium flaking off and that the MinDat warning is general for all uranium-linked ores, and that the main risk is of radon outgassing and accumulating. The blurb on Wikipedia mentions that proper ventilation or gas-tight ventilation is required.
I emailed the vendor, suggesting that they might want to add a warning to the auction that the sample is radioactive and requires special handling and storage considerations. Later on I emailed, asking if there is a risk that the specimens I ordered could be contaminated with dust from the radioactive torbernite.
Another site agrees that human exposure should be limited.
The vendor got back to me saying there is “not really” cause for concern, and they offered to cancel my open orders. The way they said it made me feel that I was being silly and that they were afraid of negative feedback. The vendor has a very large gallery in Manhattan, so if they’re not worried about storing the sample and handling it for photography, I’m not going to be worried that a micron or two of dust is going to find its way to other items I ordered. Besides, if I hadn’t decided to look up info on torbernite, I wouldn’t have worried about radioactive contamination in the first place.
They also remarked that the sample is not radio active [sic] unless it has been under certain conditions and tampered with.
Let me just say that radioactivity can not be turned on or off. Less hydrated torbernite can form meta-torbernite, which is still radioactive.
Torbernite’s composition is Cu(UO2)2(PO4)2-(8-12) H2O. Yup, that U is uranium.
Web sources all say that this mineral is radioactive. While there are background levels of radiation all around us, including traces of uranium, and radon is naturally occurring, under no circumstances will I be bringing radioactive minerals into my home. Especially not with my rock, mineral, and fossil collection in the same small room where I spend a good part of every day.
Needless to say, I didn’t bid on the torbernite specimen.
Now, the part where all this relates to tools.
From a potential hazard point of view, consider a vintage hand tool, such as a wrench, that has a cadmium finish. Let’s say you buy it off of Ebay or elsewhere, take it home, and decide that you want to clean it off with a wire wheel or other abrasive. That would be a BAD idea. Here’s some information about cadmium poisoning if you want to know why you should never expose yourself to cadmium dust if you can help it.
You have to know what you’re buying, or almost buying, which I came ->this close<- to not doing with the radioactive mineral specimen. The vendor seems uninformed about the nature of what it is they’re selling as well, but that could just be the team member responsible for managing their Ebay sales.
As an example in regard to power tools, there’s a reason some angle grinders are sold as angle grinders and some are sold as cut-off tools. Cut-off tools often include the blade guards intended for use with flat cutting wheels. There are depressed cutting wheels that can physically be used with conventional angle grinder guards, but they’re not as safe since guards intended for grinding wheels don’t provide sufficient protective coverage for cutting wheels.
The world is a scary place, with lots of hazards and potential for harm. Have you ever read the MSDS (material safety data sheet) bulletins for common paint stripper chemicals and adhesives such as contact cement? You should, for every single product you buy that there are MSDS forms available for!!
But there’s no reason to resort to living in a shielded bubble. Just, for everything you buy and use, know exactly what it is you’re getting. A lot of accidents can be avoided by doing this. That goes for all manners of tools and chemicals.
I just hope that whoever bids on and eventually wins the Ebay auction for the torbernite specimen knows that it constantly outgases radon and emits low levels of radioactivity.
Before anyone brings it up, I am aware that the ionization smoke alarm in the room contains a small amount of radioactive material. I am just disconcerted that I almost purchased a radioactive uranium-based mineral sample that would have been openly displayed in my office/work room where I spend many hours every day.
30 seconds with Google alerted me to the dangers, but how many people don’t turn to Google before buying a cadmium-plated wrench, a quart of highly toxic paint stripper, or accessories inappropriate or unsafe to use with the power tools they’re intended for?
Image Credit: Yaiba0390, via Flickr, CC license. This is not the one up for auction on Ebay.
Luckily Uranium is an alpha emitter which is the lowest penetrating radiation. Typically not very far even through air and a piece of paper or a glass case is easily enough to shield the particles. I would be comfortable with this stuff in my home.
True, but I don’t always wash my hands after moving around a piece of quartz or calcite. Know what I mean? I don’t scrub my hands after touching these or other harmless minerals.
10 years ago or so, I was in a junior-year physics laboratory class and some of the students’ learning experiments involved radioactive samples. In the radiation safety training we all took it was emphasized how radiation intensity is proportional to distance. Use gloves and forceps and all should be well. Just make sure not to ingest the samples, which leads to a world of problems (and mountain of paperwork for the RSO).
Many of my samples aren’t encapsulated in a glass case, and unless it was air-tight the radon could still be a problem.
I would be comfortable with something like this in my home, but maybe in a few years if/when I can accommodate the special safety considerations it requires for display. What mostly bothers me is that I almost bid on and bought the sample all while being unaware of this.
Just saw your comment, and wanted to clear something up. Lol, I know this is a super late reply, sorry. While pure uranium is an alpha emitter, uranium minerals are NOT only alpha emitters. The uranium in those minerals has been decaying for billions of years, and this has led to a build up of so called “daughter isotopes” that result from the alpha decay of uranium. These daughters release beta and gamma, which is why a piece of uranium ore will emit alpha, beta, and gamma radiation.
I have a fairly large torbernite sample in my collection. It’s quite hot and reads over 60,000 counts per minute beta gamma on my SBM-20 tube, and it’s my absolute favourite specimen in my collection. Knee-jerk radiophobia is not something that is necessary, due to the effects of low dose radiation being largely not backed by scientific evidence; they are the product of backwards extrapolation linearly based on what we do have evidence for: high doses of radiation. This is called the linear no threshold model, and is disputed within the scientific community. It says that there is no safe level of radiation and that any exposure to any level of radiation will increase your cancer risk by a measurable amount. This is the same as saying dipping your hands into boiling water will give you a nasty burn, and dipping your hands into water that is 10 celsius will still burn you, but less so. I get that the LNT model assumes it is best to err on the side of caution, but when studies show that areas of high background radiation, and those that work in fields that expose them to higher than average levels of radiation either do not show any increase in cancer rates over the general population, or in fact show lower than average cancer rates, it leads me to think maybe there is a threshold. We live on a radioactive planet, after all. We evolved in it. We are bathed in it every single second of every single day. The potassium-40 in our own bones decays at a rate of around 3.7kBq, that’s 3,700 nuclear decays per second, and that’s the potassium, that doesn’t even count the other radionuclides present in our bodies in small amounts such as radium-226 and uranium-238. Bottom line, don’t be so deathly afraid of radiation. It’s unnecessary and you absolutely can safely own and handle uranium ores, just practice some basic common sense.
Very poor advise. As a retired Radiation Health Physicist there is some serious concerns with your response. Radiation is proven to cause damage to human tissue. Especially when taken internally this compound has several issues. Radon gas, alpha, beta and gamma radiation will all cause damage to skin and organs. This should be stored in a lead shielded air tight container. It should be handled with gloves and should not be viewed or handled in areas for food prep or dining.
I’m well aware of the dangers of radiation to human tissue, and I appreciate your concern. You are correct, all forms of radiation can and does damage living tissue and organs and nowhere did I say that it does not, however as I said before there is no way to escape from it completely, and every living organism on earth has been exposed to it every second of every day since the dawn of time. It would then logically follow that a certain level of radiation exposure must be acceptable, otherwise none of us would even be alive. For what it’s worth, handling of my samples is infrequent and seldom directly as they’re kept in display cases, and the rest of the time they are kept in a lead-lined container away from living spaces, and I always wash my hands thoroughly after handling. As I said before, it’s basic common sense and the fact of the matter is we simply don’t have the data for the stochastic effects of low doses of ionising radiation on the body; all the data we do have is the effects of high doses which has been extrapolated backwards as if to say “like this, but less so”.
as a side note to the conversation – due to the geometry of the SBM-20 tube, the reading you are getting is skewed when it comes to actual activity. SBM-20 is suitable for general dosimetry (environmental backgrounds) but it is not optimal for surveying mineral samples – for this you need a pancake probe (LND 7317 or LND 7311 for example). The 60, 000 cpm you are getting are under-reported – it is likely a pancake detector would probably read 80000—10000., I have a torbernite sample which reads 130 000cpm when measured with LND7311 tube. I agree with you – no sense of fear mongering tho if one is sensibke and observes the safety rules.
Alpha emitters are very harmful if ingested or more importantly inhaled. You could have that particulate irradiate you from within, ionizing radiation inside you, just saying brother
If you have a tig welder, the tungsten is also radioactive.
It depends on the electrode, and it’s not the tungsten that’s radioactive. If it’s thoriated tungsten then it is in fact radioactive. There are other tungsten formulations available, such as lanthanated, zirconiated or pure tungsten.
Before I bought my present house I purchased on Amazon a radon detector and tested my basement and first floor areas. I understand your concern about buying radioactive minerals and bringing them into your home, even if only a slight chance of exposure. I wonder how many people fail to test for radon gas which could potentially infiltrate their entire house for years on end?
Regarding dangerous purchases made on ebay– a few years ago an antique bookseller auctioned off a children’s book titled: “The Radium Book”. The pages were supposed to glow in the dark. The copyright date was 1905 before the cancer causing dangers were known.
I hope you wash your hands after you touch your GRANITE COUNTERTOP. Granite gives off radiation due to Uranium decay.
I would hope that someone writing in from a major home improvement retailer’s corporate offices would know the difference between uranium content in granite (~3-5 parts per million) and uranium content in a uranium-bearing mineral.
A quick calculation shows that torbernite is composed of about 48.9% uranium. That means that 20 grams of torbnerite, the size of the sample I almost bought that prompted this post, contains 9.78 grams of uranium.
An equivalent amount of granite, assuming the 3-5 ppm is by weight percent, would be about 2,000,000 to 3,300,000 grams.
Did you get that? 10 grams of uranium in a 20 gram torbernite sample vs. 10 grams of uranium in 2,000,000 grams of granite, at the very least.
Here’s a different way of looking at it. The chances of finding a single part of uranium in granite is between 1 in 200,000 and 1 in 333,000. The chances of finding a single part of uranium in torbernite is about 1 in 2, which is also the odds of an average US coin landing on heads.
So please, don’t try to compare granite to a radioactive uranium-bearing ore.
I was making a point, and I quote in your own words “under no circumstances will I be bringing radioactive minerals into my home”
Radioactive minerals and materials contributing to common background radiation are very different things.
For the most part, a granite countertop will not have measurable radioactivity. My response was partially intended for readers who might not have realized this.
Exaggeration is why most if not all water bottles are now made from “BPA-free” plastics instead of polycarbonate.
They’re one and the same…Think about it ok? Uranium ore and other so called radioactive minerals are a source of our background radiation. potassium-40 in salt substitutes, Carbon-14 in our air and bodies alongside potassium-40. we are and will always come in contact with radioactivity no matter what we do…it’s inescapable. so concerning the torbernite sample..you should have bought it and put it in a container to keep the radon in say like a glass container since plastic is not really…..gas keeping (lol that was funny sounding) so yeah you should buy a pretty sample someday..just be sure to buy a geiger counter too or there’s this phone app that requires you to cover the camera with black tape and it pretty much detects radioactivity. If it’s only one sample the radon is no real concern because it disperses rather quickly but now if you had a ton of radioactive minerals…id be really concerned then about radon. Also as someone said: the main emission of radiation is Alpha particles which is stopped quickly by a sheet of paper or a few centimeters of air and the other emissions from its decay daughters are Beta particles which is stopped by aluminum foil or thick glass and the other is Gamma rays similar to x-rays which are the hardest to stop though less damaging than Alpha particles and Beta particles. Gamma rays are blocked by elements of high atomic numbers like lead or DU- Depleted uranium which is U-238 which will not fission.
So, do you have smoke detectors in your home? Most smoke detectors contain radioactive Americium-241, which is a decay product of Plutonium-241. Horrors! Own a Coleman propane lantern? Thorium-232 which decays to Radium-228.
Yes, but according to this site: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Non-Power-Nuclear-Applications/Radioisotopes/Smoke-Detectors-and-Americium/, one gram of americium oxide is enough for 3 MILLION smoke detectors. That’s basically immaterial.
Also, most people wouldn’t go rooting inside of their smoke detectors to find the americium, while it’s completely reasonable to think that people would actually touch a rock/material sample.
I think this might be a bit of an overreaction to something very mundane. This is a good read on the potential danger of Autunite (around 47% Uranium IIRC) by a qualified individual: http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q573.html
That is a good read, thanks!
Still, if it’s radioactive, special handling and storage measures are called for. I spend up to 18 hours a day in the room I currently keep my samples in.
My reaction wasn’t due to the fact that the mineral is radioactive, but that I almost bought it and brought it into my home without knowing about this. I have bought other minerals in the past based on appearances and without foreknowledge about their structures and properties.
Sure, and in no way would I encourage the idea of ignoring common sense and radiation safety, rather I was trying to give an idea of why some people might not feel that collecting small radioactive samples in moderation is dangerous. By all means pay attention to radiation safety, it is important! As the link above states in the end it’s all about peace of mind for you, so the best you can do is conduct your own practices accordingly. I agree that in a perfect world these things should be labeled, especially larger samples, but the gov’t doesn’t regulate radioactive ore so there is no rule or law that says they must be. I enjoy collecting radioactives as much as all other minerals, and for my piece of mind I keep the sample size small and the number of samples modest.
take a look on this video. It’s me with my Inspector Alert taking “info” from this big piece of Torbernite. The probe has not been shielded for alpha beta and gamma single misurements but total emission has displayed.
Hey Stuart, just wanted to put some of your fears to rest. Torbernite is a pretty harmless mineral, with quite low radioactivity as far as radioactive minerals go.
As other posters have pointed out; there is no escape from radioactivity in our lives; from the radio-Carbon in your own cells, to the 40K in banana’s, alkali-feldspars (such as those found in granite); Urainum series elements released from coal / fossil fuel burning… etc. etc. etc.
Lucio linked a video of a store-bought radiation sensor with a sample of Torbernite. The sample pegged up to 15 mR/hr. Certainly more than most materials; but with simple precautions it’s not much more than background levels depending on where you live.
For reference, it takes about 100 R/hr to be very dangerous / lethal to humans (several orders of magnitude higher radioactivity than a small sample of Torbernite posesses).
The long and short of it is; Torbernite is not terribly dangerous to purchase or interact with for reasonable periods of time. If you are adding it to a mineral collection, placing it in a sealed lead-glass case removes the small radiation hazard the mineral presents. Radon out-gassing from a hand sample is negligible compared to what you will get in your basement with a granite bedrock / in coal country; but a sealed container eliminates that issue all-together as long as if / when you open the container you do it in a well ventilated area.
For my personal radioactive mineral collection, I keep all of my samples in small airtight lead-glass boxes, It works well for very radioactive minerals (e.g. Uraninite) as well as more mildly radioactive minerals (e.g. Torbernite).
I agree with Nathan on this one.
All of my collection is radioactive. I do not have minerals that are not.
A single piece of torbernite is not going to pose any problems and some collectors will have several Uranium and Thorium minerals which as a group present no harm.
The radiation from small collections is trivial. Handling the specimens directly should be avoided but again, small collections do not present any danger.
The people who have larger collections are well aware of the hazards.
Because of the type of minerals I collect and my regular exposure to them I do not handle any of them directly. Individually they are harmless and not hazardous to touch but I keep my personal exposure to any specimens to a minimum.
The direct radiation from them is trivial. I do monitor it. It’s more for amusement than hazard awareness.
The real hazard that comes from a large collection is radon gas. I go to extraordinary lengths to reduce radon gas leaks. Almost all of my specimens are in air tight display cases. Some of them are in double and triple air tight containers and I actively monitor the radon gas in the containers.
Fear keeps you safe, but it also keeps you ignorant.
Ignorance does not keep you safe, but it can make you happy.
Education brings understanding, appreciation and enjoyment.
Understanding what Torbernite is can allow you to enjoy it without an irrational fear. There are many other minerals that you might consider a lot more hazardous like Cinnabar or Arsenopyrite to name a few.
That’s my point, I almost ordered the mineral unknowing of its radon-emitting hazard. Since my collection cannot accommodate special air-tight storage requirements right now, I passed.
A single Torbernite specimen is not a radon hazard by itself.
I have several good Torbernite specimens and I keep them contained even though there is no need for me to do so. The radon emitted from is only small compared to other Uranium and Thorium minerals. The word I use is “disappointing”.
Even if you’re still concerned, keeping the specimen in a simple glass jar will keep the very small nuclear genie contained.
What does matter is what makes you happy and if not having Uranium, Thorium or Potassium in your collection to avoid radioactivity does that, then that’s a win.
I have a small radioactive collection (just two specimens) of uraninite and uranophane of hand specimen size. I keep them in a lead lined box but as far as I am aware it is not sealed, I had not considered the problems associated with radon gas. I was curious as to the relative radioactivity/radon gas generation associated with these minerals and what specific types of precautions are able to mitigate them?
As a new collector, I actually unknowingly purchased a radioactive mineral today at a gem show. Thankfully I googled it extensively just as I left the show since I was unfamiliar with it, but other people may not have done that. I do accept responsibility to be informed, but at the same time I really do think it is a duty of sellers and dealers to provide a disclaimer when a mineral is toxic or radioactive or needs to be handled with special care.
What an exciting life you lead.
Let me begin with: I am a mom with no scientific knowledge of rocks and minerals. I went to a rock and gem show a few years ago and purchased some rocks and things from their ‘auction’ table. They had a room with the ‘glowing’ rocks. I am feeling like I may have bought some of those rocks and have been mishandling them. I never thought about rocks being unsafe and so easily purchased.
Where can I take my rocks to be looked at? Do you have any suggestions? I do not have hours to pour over the internet looking at all the rocks. Additionally, I have the rocks I have purchased, rocks I have found, and rocks I have bought at garage sales etc. all together.
Thank you in advance for any information you can provide.
If they had a “room with glowing rocks,” those are usually fluorescent or phosphorescent. Fluorescent rocks, or rocks with fluorescent components “glow in the dark,” under special lighting, such as UV.
If you were really concerned or interested, a local college or university geology department might be willing to help you identify your rocks. Or you can look at online photos of radioactive minerals, to see if your samples have any resemblances.