Holiday jewelry buyers may have a very special concern this season – blue Topaz gems that may possibly be radioactive. In July, several major jewelry companies reported that they had suspended all sales of blue Topaz gems because of concerns about whether the radiated stones have been properly tested for safe radiation levels before entering the United States.
In the last 30 years or so, blue topaz, in a light shade similar to that of aquamarine, has become a very popular gem. It is estimated that blue Topaz gems generate roughly $1 billion in annual sales across the US according to the American Gem Trade Association. Nearly every standard commercial jewelry store carries this gem for sale in a variety of jewelry settings. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the jewelry industry without this gemstone staple, but few people know that virtually all these beautiful blue gemstones have been treated by irradiation. Some years ago, it was discovered that inexpensive, colorless topaz crystals could be treated by nuclear radiation and the ionizing energy of the radiation would change the color of the topaz. The radioactive energy slightly alters the crystal and creates a color center that gives the blue color to the formerly colorless crystal. In general, the blue color is permanent.
The beautiful blue gemstones are comparatively inexpensive and have long been a consumer favorite in the US. Virtually 100% of these blue gems have been irradiated with some form of treatment or another, and essentially all of them are radiated in facilities outside the US that are not subject to US government safety regulations. Certain types of irradiation can actually create radioactivity within the topaz gems. Topaz gemstones which were previously safe can become radioactive to levels above what is considered safe by the government. Under the current regulations of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, only licensed companies may import and sell blue Topaz stones to the US market. These rules require that a licensed agent check the stones for any dangerous residual radioactivity. In spite of the fact that thousands of blue Topaz gemstones are sold in the US, currently there is not a single licensee authorized to do so, and there has not been for a number of years. The stones which are being sold have not been checked as required by law.
The question has arisen among consumer protection groups asking why no one has been monitoring the safety of the stones. In addition, because virtually no individual jewelry stores are equipped to check these stones for residual radioactivity, there is a concern that some radioactive stones may be making it into the US market and being sold to unwary jewelry consumers. At this time the NRC has not publicly requested jewelry retailers to stop selling blue Topaz, however some companies have done so voluntarily because of the potential risk to their customers.
The NRC is currently working with several associations of jewelers to create a system whereby all irradiated gems will be fully tested for safety before they are sold to the jewelry consumer. Several batches of blue Topaz have been tested, and no stones which would present a hazard to the wearer have been found. However, this testing covered only a limited number of stones, especially when considering the huge numbers that are currently being imported into the US.
The topaz gems which are of the greatest concern are those stones which display what is called a London blue color. This is a darker than normal blue, produced by more powerful nuclear radiation. It is this more powerful radiation that is most likely to make the treated topaz stone become radioactive itself. Jewelry industry spokesmen say that the risk is low, but concerned consumers should be aware of the potential for this problem.
To see photographs of the darker blue Topaz color, be sure to check out the authors Gem information website at: http://nevada-outback-gems.com/Encyclopedia_pages/gem_treatments/topaz_treatment.htm
For general information about topaz as a gemstone, check out the authors website at: http://nevada-outback-gems.com/Encyclopedia_pages/Topaz.htm
Chris Ralph writes on small scale mining and prospecting for the ICMJ Mining Journal. The author has an entire gem information encyclopedia on his website, be sure to check out the site at: http://nevada-outback-gems.com/Encyclopedia_pages/Gemstone_Encyclopedia.htm
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