Poster Issued by the New York Department of Health (ca. 1981)

At some time during the 1930s and 1940s, gold seeds that had previously contained radon-222 were melted down by an unknown individual or individuals.  Presumably this occurred somewhere in New York State. The gold, contaminated with the long lived decay products of radon (Pb-210, Bi-210 and Po-210), was mixed with uncontaminated gold and used to manufacture jewelry. 

Quoting an article from the August 30, 1981 issue of the Syracuse Herald-American: "The state Health Department will man a special booth at the State Fair to screen gold jewelry for possible radiation contamination. Several months ago, health officials said they had discovered a number of contaminated pieces of gold jewelry, which may have caused skin irritations to their owners. Since the start of the year, health officials have spotted about 150 pieces of radioactive jewelry, nearly half of which were class rings or pins from the Buffalo area, dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the wearers of radioactive jewelry eventually had fingers amputated because of cancer. Health officials theorized that radon gold seeds – previously used in cancer therapy – were obtained illegally and used in the manufacture of the jewelry. Dave Axelrod, the state’s health commissioner, said while authorities had not discovered many such pieces recently, he still believed it was necessary to check for radioactive pieces of jewelry in circulation.  

The State Fair continues through Labor Day."

One estimate (Boggs et al, 1969) of the surface dose rate from a gold slab (e.g., gold ring) made from spent gold seeds was 5.2 rads/hr. Direct measurements of the beta dose rates on contaminated jewelry were lower, but still consistent: "up to 900 mR/hr" (Boggs et al 1969).

Size: ca. 12.5" x 17.5"


Boggs, E.F, Schmidt, G.D., Williams, K.D. Radiological Health Aspects of Spent Radon Seeds. Radiological Health Data and Reports. Vol. 10 (5). May 1969.

Johns, H., Skarsgard, L.G. Spent radon seeds: II. radiation from spent radon seeds. Radiology 74: 403-406. March 1960.

Simon, N., Harley, J. Skin reactions from gold jewelry contaminated with radon deposit. JAMA 200: 166-167. April 1967.

Gerwig, T., Winer, M. radioactive jewelry as cause of cutaneous tumor. JAMA 205: 123-124. August 1968.

Science News. Radioactive jewelry causes cancer. Science 94: 236. September 1968.

Time. Radiology: rings and cancer. Time p. 68, September 13, 1968.

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Last updated: 07/25/07
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