Tritium tubes glow for many years without requiring to be charged using sunlight or electricity. People use them to identify things in the dark. They can be operated without batteries eliminating the need to replace them every few years. The notion that they contain dangerous radioactive materials that can be detrimental to health is a misconceived one. This misconception may be due to the ignorance of what constitutes tritium. A better understanding of the workings of the chemical components of tritium can help the general public make an informed decision when buying tritium-based products.
Self-Luminous tritium vials. How they glow in the dark.
Of what is tritium composed?Tritium is one of the most valued substances on earth and has the lowest energy rating of all radioisotopes. Chemically it is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. Its nucleus consists of a proton and two neutrons. So, the only difference between hydrogen and tritium is that tritium has two neutrons whereas hydrogen does not have any. Adding two extra neutrons to hydrogen makes it unstable and radioactive, earning the name tritium. In nature, when upper atmospheric gasses such as nitrogen or deuterium collide with air molecules tritium is produced. Tritium is created artificially by bombarding hydrogen with neutrons in an accelerator or a nuclear reactor.
What makes it glow brightly?All tritium-based products consist of sturdy borosilicate glass tubes coated with phosphorus of various colors filled with compressed gaseous tritium. The tritium releases low energy electron that travels through the vial and strikes the phosphorous coating that completely absorbs the electron and releases energy to produce visible light or an intense glow. In other words, the radiation of tritium gas mixes with phosphor and emits a continuous light source. That creates the radio-luminescence of tritium products. They are self-powered.
What are the practical usages?
Today many tritium-based everyday products are available in the market for both leisure and practical applications. Some of the common everyday usages of tritium are emergency lighting in airplanes and commercial buildings, exit signs, airport runway lights, tracer in medical and academic research, fuel for thermonuclear weapons, fusion reactors, neutron generators, x-rays, watches, jewelry, keyrings and gun sights for firearms. The most universal and practical application of tritium is found in clock dials and wristwatches so that they are visible even in darkness and during night time when the lights are out. They are an indispensable tool to determine the age of historical artifacts. Selling tritium-based consumer products in the market is legal but regulated by some countries. Perhaps in the future tritium could be used to produce electricity using fusion reactors.
Image: Tritium Torch
How do you measure tritium?The standard international unit of measuring radioactivity is the Becquerel. To pose any severe and life-threatening health effect tritium has to be taken directly into the body in billions of Becquerel. According to the World Health Organization estimates, that amounts to 2 liters of tritium water every day for a year. But that is a very rare occurrence. Even the water neighboring the nuclear facilities, where tritium levels are historically slightly higher, contains tritium well below the public dose limit. In short, tritium exposure is seldom health-damaging as it is a weak source of beta radiation. Moreover, doses of human-made tritium releases are highly regulated by the US government.
How safe are tritium products?That begs the question: are tritium-based products safe to use? Will wearing tritium jewelry or carrying tritium keyrings in the pockets cause cancer? How about if they break? There is experimental evidence that the leakage of tritium from everyday products is practically nil. Tritium is a low energy beta emitter, and virtually no radiation is released. And even if it does, tritium radiation cannot penetrate the skin neither can it travel very far in the air. The damage only comes if inhaled or ingested into the body but even then, it chemically behaves like water in our systems and does not represent any threat to the body. If a glowing watch or gun sight happens to break, the radioactive properties would soon rise and dissolve into the ambient air. Thanks to its low density, it thins down into the atmosphere and causes no harm to any living being. The tritium radiation contained in Tritium-based products that we use is typically less than a CT scan. They are undoubtedly proven to be extremely user-friendly and safe.
Is exposure to tritium hazardous?
There is science-based data substantiated that people are exposed to tritium radiation on a daily basis at very low concentrations. They come from natural sources such as drinking water, food chain and the atmosphere as it is present naturally in the environment. Rainwater is also found to contain certain traces of tritium gasses. In fact, tritium is found in minuscule amounts in groundwater throughout the world. So, by default, we are exposed to tritium radiation from these natural sources every single day. But here is the thing. Tritium primarily enters human bodies when we eat food or drink water containing tritium. Once entered into human bodies, it disperses quickly. We excrete half of it within ten days. Now consider this. The radiations emitted out of broken vials of tritium-based products are so negligible that even if consumed for an entire year, it is 1,000 times lesser than the radiation from above-mentioned natural sources and 12 times smaller than that absorbed during a single flight across the Atlantic.
People turn a blind eye to regular things made of tritium, thinking that they are poisonous. Worse still, some believe that exposure to its radiation causes cancer and other terminal illnesses. Too many people walk out of the doors of shops without buying beautifully manufactured tritium goods. The truth of the matter is they are as safe as the air that we breathe. Tritium is a low-energy emitter that has proven to have no grave biological consequences. Scientists and regulators believe that traces of tritium even in nuclear facilities is so insignificant that it is not worth pursuing a study of its health effect.