Snippets of Science: Radioactive Fiestaware

Snippets of Science are short tales of fascinating science for a quick read.

Would you like some uranium with your tea?

From 1936-1972, the makers of Fiestaware (and also many other ceramics from that time) used uranium oxide in the glaze, making the dining sets radioactive.
They initially used natural uranium which contains a mix of uranium-238 and uranium-235, but during World War II, the US government seized uranium supplies around the country to collect the fissile U-235 for use in atomic weapons. After the war, the ceramics were glazed with depleted uranium oxide, which has a smaller percentage of U-235. Other uses of depleted uranium are armor piercing bullets and golf clubs because it is so dense, hard, and cheap. (Don’t let the “depleted” term fool you, they are still radioactive. It just refers to the amount of U-235). You probably won’t get sick using this dinnerware, but there’s also lead in it that could leach out (along with the uranium) so I’m not gonna be using our set.

“But if I buy some at a thrift shop, will they still be radioactive all these year later?!” you also ask?! Fear not, the half life of uranium-238 is 4.5 billion years, so they are essentially just as radioactive as the day they were forged.

If you’ve been dreaming of teaching your kids about radioactivity, check out Nuclear Physics for Babies for their first taste of this wild subject. 😉

Sources:

Oak Ridge: https://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/consumer%20products/fiesta.htm

EPA: https://www3.epa.gov/radtown/antiques.html

Landa, E. and Councell, T. Leaching of Uranium from Glass and Ceramic Foodware and Decorative Items. Health Physics 63 (3): 343-348; 1992.

Piesch, E, Burgkhardt, B, and Acton, R. Dose Rate Measurements in the Beta-Photon Radiation Field from UO2 Pellets and Glazed Ceramics Containing Uranium. Radiation Protection Dosimetry 14 (2): 109-112; 1986.

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