Are Your Vintage Lenses Going to Kill You?

If you stop and think about it, it's pretty difficult to exist in today's world. Vaccines are(n't) out to get your children, there could be Daleks around every corner, and even that vintage lens you scored on eBay might be radioactive, lurking between the sheets, following your every move, wreaking havoc on your DNA when you're not looking. Maybe even stealing your french fries. Or, at least that's what Mathieu Stern was concerned about before he made this video.

If you've ever had concerns about the radioactive coatings used on older lenses, I encourage you to take a minute and watch this video. I have a B.S. in Biology, so I'm pretty much an expert at science, and I can vouch that the experiments that Stern conducts are rock solid and of a high enough quality to be accepted into almost any scientific journal. 

From the 1940s to 1970s, a number of camera lenses were manufactured using a thorium coating on the lens elements, rendering the lenses measurably radioactive. Not the smartest idea in hindsight, but probably on about the same risk level as the radiation scare of holding a cell phone up to your ear.

Have you ever bought a piece of camera equipment and been concerned about the materials it was made out of? I'd love to hear your stories below.

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No. I generally don't store my old lenses between my legs or in my mouth, nor have I ever considered eating or snorting an old piece of equipment. So no, I'm not concerned about the materials that they were constructed with many moons ago. Now bad composition... that $&#% will kill you!

michael buehrle's picture

is that why all my hair fell out ? i figured it was just because i was getting old. what a relief…...

Hmm. I need to see if a Geiger counter detects Thorium on my 30+ year old Canon lenses. But they haven't turned yellow and I'm still around, so I guess not.

PS: It seems like this news was posted to Petapixel a few years ago. It seems that they did a repeat.

None of my old lenses (1940s-1970s) register even the slightest increase in radiation on a professional Geiger counter, even with a low background level of 12-13 counts per minute, or 0.08 micro Sieverts per hour.
Pretty meaningless figures in isolation unless you're a radiation nut, but this blog explains it:

Personally? I think if you licked your lenses twice daily, the bacteria on them would probably do you FAR more harm than the miniscule (undetectable) amounts of radiation any micro-additive of thorium to the glass coating might present. Probably best treat this article and video with the humour with which it was possibly intended :)