Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Fiestaware: Understanding Radiation

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote a blog on Fiestaware when I noticed that the Post Office had issued a stamp honoring the man who had designed the original Fiestaware line (Frederick Hurten Rhead).  My tone was a bit lighthearted, as one color of classical Fiestaware was made with a uranium glaze that gave it a distinctive orange color, so it had become something I personally enjoy collecting and using.  (Well, collection may be a bit exaggerated, but I do have a couple of pieces, and I also have a couple of pieces of Vaseline glass, a product that similarly used uranium to color glass.  And for any other would-be collectors, I do want to note that the Fiestaware that is in production today doesn't use that glaze.  You have to look in antique shops.)


I did not think I would ever have a reason to revisit this subject, but yesterday's news featured an article about a school at which a hazmat emergency was declared because a student brought in a small sample of uranium-containing classical Fiestaware!  The first thing that has me scratching my head is that the student brought it in because they were demonstrating the use of a Geiger counter.  A Geiger counter needs a little radiation to show it's stuff!  Duh!  The second thing that struck me about this story is the profound ignorance that still surrounds anything with the "r word"--radiation.  


 People seem to be able to put other risks in perspective, but whether because of history, because it is invisible, or for any one of a number of other reasons I have heard, people do not seem to be able to understand even the basics of radiation.  This clearly is one factor that has dogged the nuclear power industry for its entire existence.


 I wish I had a magic answer to this dilemma, a way to educate people and to make them understand what they should fear and what they do not need to fear.  But it is clear that, as we continue to try to educate the public on the safety of  nuclear power plants, we need to keep in mind that we should be sure the educational tools cover things more basic than the nuclear power plants, in particular, the radiation from not only the nuclear plants, but from even such innocuous items as an antique orange plate.




  1. Agreed, Gail, an overreaction. I hope they don't have a huge stockpile of bananas in the cafeteria!

  2. An excellent point. Bananas contain low levels of naturally occurring radioactive isotopes of potassium.

  3. Yep Potassium 40 throws low level rads, mostly Beta radiation. Fortunately for us, and monkeys, one would have to incredible amounts of bananas to noticeably increase cancer risk. Its fun though to walk through ones house with a geiger counter. If you started in the kitchen with bananas, then beer, lima beans potatoes and few other veggies and fruit emit some radiation. Brazil nuts are the highest of all normally eaten foods. But then while you are in the kitchen . . . granite countertops? Often pretty hot. Then any dishware you have that is older than the 60's? Especially the red/orange ones? Some like Fiestaware is so radioactive I use them as sources for physics experiments! Then, salt substitutes often have som. Some older iron pots and pans . . . and more! And thats just the kitchen, there are things scattered all over the house that will make a Geiger counter click. The MOST radioactive thing you have in your house is in your smoke detector. Americium 241, which is only 1 neutron difference from Plutonium! The stuff used in nuclear weapons! Then there is the radon gas that is a problem in *lots of our basements (and you should check if you haven't, nasty stuff) - it comes from the natural decay of the uranium below your house.

    And - I'm bored, so that was my long winded ramble on household radiation.

    1. Thanks for noting all the other items in our everyday lives that have measurable levels of radioactivity. But I do want to note that these are all low levels of radioactivity, and the term "hot" is a relative one. These items are not hot in the sense of being dangerous to touch or to use.

  4. Yes, "hot" is a term relative to the user/listener. Often used by physics geeks along with things like "spicy". And I apologize that I didn't read the context here better. I have ceramics that I would call "hot" in the context of ceramics. But of course Alpha radiation wouldn't even make it through a piece of paper. Scrape a piece of that glaze off and eat it though?

    Now, I have some neutron sources I built that throw (slang again) strong Gamma radiation which are "hot" in any context. Though of course most people educated in America would likely still think I mean thermally hot.

  5. In a follow up to this news article, a new news item reports that members of the science community are coming to the defense of the student involved in this incident: https://bronx.news12.com/science-community-comes-to-defense-of-student-who-brought-uranium-plate-to-school