Many people have asked me the same question repeatedly: is the luminous material on watches safe? In those days, people were almost completely unaware that Radium is one of the most radioactive elements. By 1930, all dial painters stopped pointing their brushes by mouth, although the Radioluminescent material continued to be used until the late 1950s, when it was replaced by Tritium. If you own a vintage watch with applied luminescent paint, which are still very expensive collector’s pieces, do not forget that it might be radioactive.
Subscribe to RSS or enter you email to receive newsletter for news, articles, and updates about what's new. There is no definite answer to this question as it all depends on the material used for the luminous layer.
One of the owners of this Italian company, Guido Panerai, started the first experiments with luminous materials in 1910, and developed the system that was using a mix of zinc sulphide and radium bromide. The material was used not only for the self-luminous paints for watches, but also for the nuclear panels, aircraft switches, clocks, and instrument dials. This Polish-born French scientist was also the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes. At the time when Guido Panerai started using luminous paint on Radiomir watches, the dials were painted by hand, using the camel haired paintbrushes. This was a group of female factory workers who painted watch dials at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917.

In 1946, Panerai patented Luminor, the luminous substance based on tritium, which replaced the previous Radiomir mix developed between 1910 and 1915.
The old watches do not have a warning label to indicate radioactivity and radioactive materials.
These new glow-in-the-dark pigments are based on strontium oxide aluminate chemistry and completely safe. These micro gaslights glow up to 100 times brighter than luminous paints for up to 25 years, and do not require charging from any outside light source.
Most of the watches available today use Super-LumiNova, based on non-radioactive and non-toxic photoluminescent or afterglow pigments. This element is a million times more radioactive than uranium, and it takes 1602 years before it decays. Unfortunately, this great woman died from aplastic anemia, which is tightly connected with the exposure to radiation. Workers often used their tongue to sharpen the brush, exposing their body to the deadly substance that deposits in the bones, converts into calcium and finally replaces the bone marrow. They ingested large amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes since no warning about radium toxicity was ever given to the workers.
Tritium is also potentially toxic since it uses radioactive particles of tritium, which is a low energy beta emitter, to light up the phosphorus layer.
LumiNova will stay bright through a single night if it has been subjected to enough light during the day.

Even her papers from 1890s are still considered too dangerous to handle, because of their levels of radioactivity.
However, the paint will remain dangerous for no less than 1602 years, which is the half-life of radium isotopes. The beta particles cannot penetrate the skin but tritium can also be hazardous when inhaled or ingested via food or water. All major watch brands use exclusively Swiss Super-LumiNova, which offers full high-performance over a lifetime of the watch. Very old watches do not have any kind of marking to indicate the type of luminous paint used in production of the dial. According to the precise Swiss testing, even if all 3H tubes were to break simultaneously, the estimated radiation dosage would be 30,000 times lower than the average natural background radiation. The media sensation surrounding the case triggered the enactment of regulations governing labor safety standards.

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