[ RadSafe ] Ra-226 tubing?

Ed Johnson cejjr56 at gmail.com
Fri Sep 23 20:14:02 CDT 2011

Hi Rick,

After viewing your photo, it appears to be a deck cord (i.e., barrier) that
was used during WWII, and for some time after, to warn sailors that they
were approaching the edge of a ship's deck during night-time ops.  It is
difficult to be certain of this based on the photo alone, but that's what it
looks like and the radium-226 is good supporting evidence.  There are
sections of a ship's deck where steel railings are purposely not
installed to allow ready access and egress of equipment and supplies, and
this is especially true for aircraft carriers.   Maintaining dark operations
to avoid enemy detection was and still is essential for shipboard operations
during war times.  Before the installation of these cordons, and also
radium-filled deck markers (typically two-inch diameter disks attached to
the deck's edge), it was not uncommon for sailors to unwittingly walk right
off the edge of the deck and be lost to the sea on moonless or overcast
nights.  When you're steaming along at 20+ knots on a pitch black night and
on a war mission, the overboard squid's cries for help are either not going
to be heard or the mission's demands do not permit a rescue.

The cords were strung between vertical stanchions that were bolted to the
deck.  Typically, the cords and deck markers were filled with Ra-226 that
was chemically bonded with a phosphorescent material such as a sulfate.  The
design was to create a continuous thermoluminescence whereby the 185 KeV
photons from the radium-226 were exciting the outer shell electrons of the
phosphor, which in turn returned to ground state by emitting visible
wavelelength photons.  The light intensity was low enough so as not to be
visible by the enemy at a distance, but high enough to be readily visible by
sailors on deck.  The clips on each end of the cord attached to the
stanchions.  I seem to recall that these devices were replaced with
tritium-filled markers at some time after the end of WWII.  There would of
course be less of a hazard with tritium-filled devices due to the much
shorter radiological half-life, pure beta emitter decay scheme vs. the
penetrating energy of the Ra-226 gamma photon, the non-bone seeker
biochemistry, and short effective half-life of the tritium should intake
occur.  As well, radium filled devices build up a radon-222 gas pressure and
tend to leak over time, resulting in loose contamination of surrounding
surface s by the radon decay progeny.  If you want to know about leaking
radon from supposed sealed sources, just ask any of the EPA/Roy F. Weston or
was it Chem Nuclear(?) personnel that performed the Superfund emergency
removal of 120 or so curies of radium-filled medical devices from the
"vault" at the Radium Chemical Company facility in Queens back in the late

You may know that  for many decades after WWII ended the Navy was not very
scrupulous about either acknowledging the hazards associated with this
material or disposing of the devices in a manner that we would find
acceptable today.  In fact, the regulatory requirements either did not exist
or were not well-enforced (as a federal agency the Navy was regulated by
the AEC/NRC), or the material was exempted.  How do I know what your item
is, you may wonder?  When I was a regulator for the New York State DEC, we
investigated a Yellow Freight terminal property in Rochester (Erdman Street)
that bordered a landfill where deck markers had been disposed.   Some were
surfacing.  Also, my uncle served on a light cruiser during WWII and brought
one of these cords home with him after the war.  In the 1960s as a kid, my
brother and I played with the cord because, "gee, look Wally, it glows in
the dark."  Neither I nor my parents nor my uncle had any idea that we were
likely being frequently dosed from the thing.

There were probably many linear miles of that rubber tubing produced during
the war, and one wonders where it all went!  Hmmmm...old barns, landfills,
and attics can be such treasure troves of forgotten history.  Like my
brother's Hot Wheels dragsters that are now worth $50K apiece but are buried
under 150 feet of compacted garbage.  Oh well.  If Oak Ridge Associated
Universities is still operating and still maintaining their museum of rad
material relics, you might want to contact them and ask if they want to take
it off your hands.  Anywho, hope this helps you, and I would like to hear
about your disposition of this item in a follow-up post.

Best of luck,

Carl Ed Johnson
Still a sometimes HP (unaffiliated)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
cejjr56 at gmail.com


Please see the attached PDF file (assuming the attachment goes through) of
a photo of an item that was found in an old barn in New Hampshire, USA.  It
appears to be a bundle of rubber or plastic tubing with metal clips on the
ends.  The bundle in the photo is approximately 15 cm in diameter, with a
tube thickness of approximately 0.5 cm.  The contact exposure rate is 50
mR/hr, and the isotope was identified to be Ra-226.  Does anyone know what
this might be or where it might have come from?

(See attached file: Ra-226 tubing3.pdf)

Thank you,

Rick D'Alarcao, Ph.D.
Health Physicist
Radiological Health Section
Bureau of Public Health Protection
New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services, Department of Health and
Human Services
Division of Public Health Services
29 Hazen Drive
Concord, NH 03301-6504
Phone: (603) 271-7578
Fax: (603) 225-2325
Email: rdalarcao at dhhs.state.nh.us
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