Answer to Question #1356 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
Several photography websites I read have had questions in their forums about radioactive materials in camera lenses. I know that lanthanum and thorium (possibly other elements) have been used to modify the index of refraction for glass used in some lenses. Others have raised concerns about safety when using the lenses. Can you provide a discussion of the problem and an assessment of the risk to users?
There is a partial answer to your question in the "Historical" category of "Ask the Expert."
Perhaps the best single source of information is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's NUREG-1717, "Systematic Radiological Assessment of Exemptions for Source and Byproduct Materials." When the NRC website is back up and running, this report should be available at http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/. Refer to pages 3-285.
Some general points:
The radioactive component of the lenses is 232Th (and its decay products). The thorium was added to increase the index of refraction of the lenses. The fact that thorium is radioactive was irrelevant. The first use of thoriated lenses seems to date from the late 1930s or WW II. The production of thoriated camera lenses seems to have ceased in the late 1980s. Lenses used by the military are particularly likely to be radioactive. Almost everything is radioactive to some extent. I have seen ordinary glass double the counts on a Geiger Muller detector because of the potassium content of the glass (most glass will not do this however).
One tissue of concern might be the lens of the eye—the potential consequence being cataracts. The development of cataracts as a result of a radiation exposure is referred to as a "nonstochastic" or "deterministic" effect. This means that in order for cataracts to occur, an effective threshold dose must be exceeded. The minimum dose at which cataracts can occur is a few hundred rad (the threshold depends to some degree on the type of radiation).
Thorium emits alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. For cameras employing thoriated lenses, only the gamma rays result in a dose to the lens of the eye (or any other part of the body for that matter).
The major determinant of the dose to the lens of the eye is the length of time the photographer is holding the camera up to the head. As an example, the dose rate near the viewfinder of an old Pentax camera of mine (Super Takumar lens) is roughly 100 microrad per hour—approximately ten times background. In other words, looking through the viewfinder of this camera for one minute results in the same dose that I receive every ten minutes when not using it. I would have to hold this camera up to my eye for several million hours to exceed the threshold dose for cataracts. For what it's worth, I have never had any qualms about using the camera and to my knowledge, there have been no documented cases of individuals developing cataracts as a result of cameras employing thoriated lenses.
Other parts of the body might also receive an exposure, in particular the abdomen due to the camera hanging from the neck. NUREG 1717 reported an "effective dose equivalent" of 0.7 mrem per year to users of cameras employing thoriated lenses. This is the dose to the whole body that would carry the same risk as a specified dose to a single tissue or tissues (for example, the dose to the abdomen and eye). This 0.7 mrem is substantially less than 1% of the 300 mrem that we receive each year due to our exposure to background radiation.
Of significantly more concern is the possibility that the eyepiece itself employs a thoriated lens. This has been the case in some military devices and some unauthorized commercial devices. This is a much greater problem because of the proximity of the eyepiece to the eye and the fact that alpha and beta emissions now contribute to the dose. If the eyepiece is radioactive, the germinal cells of the cornea become the tissue of concern and the potential annual dose becomes quite high. NUREG 1717 discusses this in some detail. Fortunately, thoriated eyepieces are comparatively rare.
As an additional point of interest, it was not unusual many years ago (1940s) for photographers to employ a uranium-containing toner to tint photographic prints (Kodak made such a toner). These prints would be measurably radioactive.
Paul Frame, CHP, PhD
Answer posted on 9 November 2001. The information and material posted on this website is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may alter the concepts and applications of materials and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice specific to whatever facts and circumstances are presented in any given situation. Answers are correct at the time they are posted on the Website. Be advised that over time, some requirements could change, new data could be made available, or Internet links could change. For answers that have been posted for several months or longer, please check the current status of the posted information prior to using the responses for specific applications.
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