Are you wondering if any and all welding rods are radioactive and dangerous? While not all welding rods are radioactive, some types of rods can contain low levels of radioactivity, and caution needs to be taken while handling them.
Are welding rods radioactive? Sometimes welding rods are considered radioactive. Thoriated tungsten welding rods are often used in tungsten inert gas (TIG) arc welding since 1951. These thorium rods contain thorium, which is considered to be low-level radioactive.
You should consider the type of rod that you are handling when learning how to safely handle the material. Not all welding rods have radioactivity. Only thoriated tungsten rods are radioactive. All other welding rods do not require you to handle them with radioactive precautions and safety standards.
Read on for more information about Thorium rods and how to ensure you are safely handling radioactive material!
Thorium Welding Rods
The hazards of both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are associated with the use of thoriated welding rods, and you want to be very careful with working with this material. Both ionizing and non-ionizing offer different types of health hazards.
Ionizing: There is a small amount of radioactive material in this type of welding rod. As a result, potential low-level external and internal radiation hazards exist, and you need to exist caution when operating with this material. Under normal procedures, radiation from thoriated tungsten welding rods is not much.
The protection required differs based on how long you will be exposed to the radiation, how far away from the source you are, and what shielding you are using. If it’s just a one-day supply of rods, shielding for storage requires no special precautions. A metal box or cabinet should be enough storage for a few hundred thorium welding rods.
Non-ionized: Infrared, visible, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposures contribute to the non-ionizing radiation hazards associated with TIG welding operations. As with other arc welding processes, this welding can cause injury to the eyes and skin if you are not extremely careful.
Arc welding generates very intense UV radiation, which can ruin your eyes (cornea) and cause something called “welder’s flash,” it can also cause essentially a severe sunburn to the skin, which in addition to making you very uncomfortable will also increase your risk of skin cancer. Lastly, if you look directly into the visible, infrared radiation that the arc causes, your eyes could also be injured if you are not careful.
Whether the rods are ionized or non-ionized, you still should be concerned about exposure to either of them and ensure you take the proper safety precautions. Just like we are all now extra diligent with applying sunscreen to avoid skin cancer, we should also all practice extra safety measures when dealing with radioactive material, even if it’s low in radioactivity.
Standard Industrial Hygiene
Fortunately, there are standard safety measures for dealing with radiation. Radiological concerns should be able to be addressed by following the routine and standard accepted industrial hygiene work practices, such as:
- proper ventilation
- local exhaust
- clean work area
- position of the welder’s head relative to the welding materials
- training in the safe and efficient operation of the welding and grinding equipment
It’s very important to follow safety rules and regulations.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires manufacturers of hazardous material to provide Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which is a detailed document provided by the manufacturer of hazardous material. All manufacturers of Thorium rods are required to provide you with an MSDS upon your request.
According to OSHA, “Hazard information must be transmitted on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) that must be distributed to the customer at the time of first shipment of the product.”
What Exactly Are Thorium Welding Rods?
Since not all welding rods are radioactive, let’s take a deep dive into the Thorium welding rod that is radioactive.
Thorium is natural – Thorium actually occurs naturally in our environment and is a radioactive element. It is found in all soil and rocks on earth to some extent.
These rods were introduced over 50 years ago– Thoriated tungsten electrodes were introduced as an alternative to using pure tungsten electrodes. Adding the word “thoriated” indicates that each electrode contains a small amount of thorium dioxide.
Thorium rods are primarily used for commercial needs– This includes aircraft, petrochemical, construction, and food processing. They are used in a process known as tungsten inert gas, known as TIG. You might not use them for your personal welding needs, as they are primarily used commercially. You are unlikely to run into them in most welding shops.
It’s always nice to know what you’re working with, especially when it’s radioactive. The ultimate reason Thorium is used is that it helps facilitate easier arc starting, greater arc stability, reduced weld metal contamination, have higher current-carrying capacity, and a longer electrode lifetime. Overall, there are pros to using the radioactive rod, and you should be successful as long as you practice good industrial hygiene and safety.
Common Sense When Welding with Radioactive Materials
It really isn’t high levels of radioactivity that you would be dealing with. For the most part, you can get away with just practicing some basic common sense:
When they’re not in use, avoid storing electrodes anywhere on your body, like in your shirt pocket. Don’t pull a Homer Simpson and let the little neon green electrode fall down your jacket when you leave your work area. You’ll do more than scream “D’oh!” when you obtain a radioactive burn.
Normal clothing and devices used for routine welding, even the non-radioactive kind, are mostly sufficient for your needs. Gloves, face shield, and normal work clothes offer excellent protection against radioactivity.
Lastly, don’t weld with radioactive rods inside a broom closet. It should go without saying, but make sure you have enough open space around you when welding. You should not weld in a confined space unless there is adequate ventilation.
While you should do your research and make sure you follow industry safety rules, sometimes it really just as simple as following some basic common sense!
Disposing Thorium Welding Rods
How should you dispose of Thorium welding rods? Actually… there are no federal or state regulations mandating that you dispose of this material any differently than disposing of other industrial materials of this type. They can be disposed of via the same conventional means you dispose of other welding rod materials that are non-radioactive.
Measuring Radioactive Thorium Welding Rods
Do you wonder how to measure how much radioactive material is in your welding rods? Just how safe do you need to be, and just how radioactive are the rods that you are welding with? There are several videos available on YouTube on how to measure the radioactive levels.
Radioactive Thorium Welding Rod
Radioactivity of TIG Welding Electrodes
TIF Tungsten Electrodes
While the above videos on YouTube can be used as a tool to help you identify how much radioactivity you are dealing with, you should always be extra cautious and ensure you air on the side of too much protection versus not having enough.
For Additional Information
In addition to reading the MSDS mentioned above, for additional information, you have a couple of options:
The textbook Modern Welding offers insight into all types of welding and how to ensure you are following safety protocols.
Welding Health and Safety focuses on welding safety, which you might find beneficial when learning about dealing with potentially radioactive rods. We highly recommend this text!
Check out the American Welding Society. They have a fairly large community, message boards, and other resources that might help answer your questions on what safety procedures to follow when dealing with radioactive materials.