Safety Tips: How To Handle Toxic and Radioactive Gems

Safety Tips How To Handle Toxic and Radioactive GemsAt first glance, gemstones are an absolute delight to gaze at, but did you know that not all of them are safe to handle? Despite their striking allure, there is such a thing as a dangerous gemstone. In fact, some are even toxic. How can you tell if a gemstone is toxic? Well, it's a little more complex than what you see with the naked eye.

Fortunately, we're here to share safety and handling tips for toxic and radioactive gems. First of all, what is a toxic gem?

What is a Toxic Gemstone?

Toxicity relates to a variety of situations, but we’ll exclusively discuss toxicity in gemstones. If you are new to the exciting world of gemstones, you might be alarmed to even learn that toxic gemstones exist. Alas, the more you know, the safer you can approach handling them.

The toxicity of a gemstone refers to whether or not the gem contains poisonous or dangerous elements.

For example, some gems are considered toxic because they contain trace amounts of certain hazardous metals.

If a gemstone has the capacity to be dangerous, then it's labeled as a toxic stone. Toxic gemstones include:

  • Aluminum

  • Arsenic

  • Borate

  • Chromium

  • Copper

  • Lead

  • Iron

  • Mercury

  • Nickel

Of course, this is just the shortlist so it’s important to always do your research on each material you bring into your studio or workshop.

Isolating the attributes that make gemstones toxic is important because there are numerous variables. In fact, there are six scenarios that arise with gemstone toxicity, and we’ll elaborate on each one below.

Gemstone Toxicity 101: The Six Types of Toxicity

Gemstone toxicity is not as rare as you might think. There are a multitude of factors contributing to the creation of a toxic gem. Sometimes, multiple toxic elements are at play. Here are the six types of gemstone toxicity.

1. Acute Toxicity

An acute level of toxicity isn’t as long-term as other forms of radioactive toxicity. However, don't let the term fool you! Just because acute toxicity doesn't post an everlasting reaction doesn’t mean that it’s entirely safe.

In fact, it's the exact opposite. Acute toxicity levels are a cause for an emergency, meaning if you come into contact with an acutely toxic gemstone, you should seek medical attention right away. Exposure to acute toxicity is avoidable when you abide by safety measures, such as wearing gloves and keeping a mask over your face at all times. 

2. Biological Toxicity

Biological toxicity refers solely to situations in which gems contain bacteria particles, parasitic traces, and viruses. This type of toxicity is most apparent in gems like amber, coral, ivory, and pearl. Whenever you buy one or more of these four gems, take precautions by wiping down your workspace with ethanol in order to minimize the chances of interacting with biological toxicity.

3. Chemical Toxicity

One of the most common types of gemstone toxicity is chemical toxicity. That’s because we most often come into contact with substances like lead, copper, and mercury. Chemically speaking, this type of toxicity relates to literal chemicals within the gem.

Together, these three each pose a threat to the cleanliness of gemstones. This means that when you come into contact with a gemstone with chemical toxicity, it can create an exposure pathway via inhalation, touching the stone or ingesting the chemicals. The result is a toxic chemical reaction within the body’s organs.

4. Physical Toxicity

When you touch certain gemstones, you’ll be exposed to minerals and substances on the stone that are physically toxic. For example, if you come into contact with toxic silica, asbestos or mineral dust, exposure can be fatal. That’s why it’s vital to ensure that you prevent inhalation of these substances by wearing a fine-particle mask. You’ll also want to set your space up with safe ventilation and ensure that you clean up all toxic particles.

5. Radioactive Toxicity

Unlike physical toxicity, which occurs as the result of touching or inhaling toxic particles, radioactive toxicity pertains to the radiation emitted from radioactive gemstones. Exposure to these toxins can cause radiation sickness.

6. Chronic Toxicity

As you might guess, chronic toxicity does exactly the opposite of acute toxicity. Excessive exposure to toxic chemicals can cause pathways that lead to long-term issues. For example, chronic toxicity won’t require immediate medical attention, but it can lead to long-term, even fatal, health problems.
How To Handle Toxic and Radioactive Gems

Tips on Handling Toxic Gemstones

Now that you’re familiar with the six types of toxicity in gemstones, it’s important to understand how to handle them. Your work environment, attire, and cleanup practices will make all the difference when handling toxic gemstones. The most important thing is safety, so here’s what you need to know:

What to Wear and Use When Handling Radioactive Gemstones

When handling toxic gemstones, you'll definitely want to purchase radioactive-protectant gloves. You certainly don't want to cause damage to yourself in the process of handling gems, so safety equipment is an absolute must.

However, before you choose a pair of gloves to buy, ensure they are well-equipped to handle the intensity of radioactive and toxic gemstones. Once you have a pair of safety gloves, store them in a protective and isolated box or glove box.

When you wear your protective gloves, your hands are protected, but particles remain on the surface of the gloves. Essentially, you want to keep yourself safe from the gloves also. As you handle toxic or radioactive gemstones, you don’t want to risk cross-contamination onto your skin from the gloves, which is why a dedicated box is vital.

How To Dispose of Toxic Gems

When it comes time to get rid of toxic gemstones, safety is of utmost importance. Wearing a mask, as well as safety gloves, will ensure that you won't risk your health in the process of disposing of gems. Rather than tossing the gemstones directly into the garbage, reach out to your local waste management facility to inquire about best practices for disposing of toxic substances. Most often, there are regulations and guidelines to help you.

How to Store Toxic Gemstones

As a gemologist or lapidary, you’ll likely have to store a few toxic gemstones from time to time. The first matter of business is to clearly label your toxic gems from non-toxic gems. It sounds so obvious, but truly, it’s a step many people skip and it’s simply not worth the danger. Labels are essential because, as we touched on earlier, you can’t tell alone just by looking at a gemstone whether it’s toxic or not.

Many people encourage the use of different colored storage containers to help you separate radioactive material from non-toxic gems. Also, be sure that you keep atoxic gems out of reach from children and pets.

Final Thoughts

Working with gemstones is a true delight, but it’s crucial to be aware of toxic and radioactive materials. Once you isolate and label your toxic gemstones, you want to take every careful step to ensure you don’t compromise your health. The more you know about working with toxic gemstones, the better precautions you can take.

If you have any questions or hesitations about a gemstone, it’s vital to do your research and get more information before you bring it into your workshop. Sadly, cutting corners can be lethal, and it’s simply not worth it. However, if you properly label your toxic gems, store them securely and take precautions when handling them, you’ll keep yourself and your environment safe.


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