There are a significant number of lenses produced from the 1940s through the 1970s that are measurably radioactive. Main source of radioactivity is the use of thorium oxide (up to 30% by weight) as a component of the glass used in the lens elements. Thorium oxide has a crystalline structural similar to calcium fluoride (fluorite). Like fluorite, its optical properties of high refractivity and low dispersion allows lens designers to minimize chromatic aberration and utilize lenses of lower curvature, which are less expensive to produce. Contrary to often seen statements to the otherwise, lenses containing lanthanum are not appreciably radioactive – lanthanum is only 1/10,000th as radioactive as thorium. Radioactivity in lanthanum containing lenses is due to the intentional inclusion of thorium in the optical glass mix. The presence of thorium can sometimes, depending on the mixture of other elements in the lens, cause moderate to severe browning of the lens element(s).
Typical radiation levels can approach 10 mR/hr as measured at the lens element’s surface, decreasing substantially with distance; at a distance of 3 ft. (.9 m.) the radiation level is difficult to detect over typical background levels. For reference, a typical chest x-ray consists of about about 10 mR, a round-trip cross country airline flight exposes a passenger to 5 mR, and a full set of dental x-rays exposes the patient to 10 mR to 40mR.
Most smaller lenses with thorium elements are not very dangerous. However, thorium eyepieces are dangerous. They can give a very large alpha and beta particle dose to the cornea of the eye, causing cataracts and other problems. Normally these particles are stopped by skin, but the surface of the eye is quickly damaged by them, and at close range, the dose can be very high.
By far the most prolific producer of radioactive lenses was Eastman Kodak. From the 1940s through the 1960s, substantial numbers of amateur cameras were produced and sold with thoriated (containing thorium oxide) lenses, including some of the Pony, Signet, and high end Instamatic (e.g. 800 and 814, but not 100 or 124) cameras. In addition, many professional level Ektar lenses from this era contain thorium. Perhaps the most famous radioactive lenses of all were the Kodak Aero-Ektars.
Curiously, in his notable book, A History Of The Photographic Lens, Rudolf Kingslake (head of the Eastman Kodak lens design department 1937-1968), makes only a single passing comment on the possible use of thorium in Kodak lenses.
Lenses Tested Radioactive (by the author)
- Kodak Ektar 101mm f/4.5 (Miniature Crown Graphic camera) lens mfg. 1946
- Kodak Ektar 38mm f/2.8 (Kodak Instamatic 814 camera) lens mfg 1968-1970
- Kodak Ektanar 50mm f/2.8 (Kodak Signet 80 camera) lens mfg. 1958-1962 (3 examples)
- Kodak Ektanar 90mm f/4 (Kodak Signet 80 camera) lens mfg. 1958-1962
- Kodak Ektanar, 44mm f/2.8 (Kodak Signet 30, Kodak Signet 50, Kodak Automatic 35/Motormatic 35 cameras) lenses mfg. 1959-1969
- Kodak Ektanon 50mm f/3.9 (Kodak Bantam RF camera) lens mfg. 1954-1957
- Kodak Ektanon 46mm f/3.5 (Kodak Signet 40 camera) lens mfg. 1956-1959
- Kodak Anastar 44mm f/3.5 (Kodak Pony IV camera)
- Kodak Color Printing Ektar 96mm f/4.5 lens mfg. 1963
Lenses Reported Elsewhere As Radioactive
- Bell & Howell Director Series (Model 1208?) XL Super 8 movie camera; Zoom Lens f: 1.2 F: 9-22.5 mm
- Canon FL 58mm f/1.2
- Canon FL 50mm f/1.8
- FL 50/1.8 I (#58233): Up to 450 cpm / 26 µSv/h at the back lens, up to 7 cpm / 0.4 µSv/h behind camera or at the lens barrel.
FL 58/1.2 (#25516, #44528): Up to 180 cpm / 10 µSv/h at the back lens, up to 30 cpm / 1.7 µSv/h behind camera or at the lens barrel.
- Canon FD 17mm f/4
- Canon FD 35mm f/2.0 (versions from the early 1970’s, concave)
- Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C. Aspherical (Measured at 46532 CPM @ front element )
- Canon SUPER-CANOMATIC LENS R 50mm 1:1.8 No.78xxx
- Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 55mm f1.4 (measured at 2360 nSv/h)
- Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f1.8 "Zebra"
- Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 "Zebra" "(Only P6 mount version )
- Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 50mm f4 "Zebra" "(Only P6 mount version )
- Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm f2.8
- Carl Zeiss Jena Prakticar 50mm f1.4 (1st version with engravings around the outer side of barrel)
- Focal (Kmart store brand) 35mm f/2.8
- Fujica Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 non-EBC(Measured at 35137 CPM @ back element )
- Fujica Fujinon 50mm f/1.4 EBC )
- GAF Anscomatic 38mm f/2.8 (GAF Anscomatic 726 camera)
- Industar 61 L/Z MC (L is for Lanthanum – radioactive element)
- Kodak Aero-Ektars (various models)
- Kodak Ektanon 4-inch Projection Lens f/3.5
- Kodak Instamatic M24/26 Super 8 Camera
- Konica Hexanon AR 50mm f1.4 (smallest aperture 16; green AE marking)
- Konica Hexanon 57mm f1.2
- Konica Hexanon 21mm f4 SN 7029XXX, primarily thorium and thorium decay products
- Leica 50mm f/2 Collapsible Summicron
- Mamiya/Sekor 55mm f/1.4 (m42, chrome+black, flat rear element) (Measured by specialists, 25th april 2014 @ Poissy, France: from 5 to 10 µSV/h by direct touch & 1720 CPM).
- Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 (early variant with thorium glass elements)
- Olympus Zuiko MC Macro 20mm f/3.5 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/s58y/6802092736/)
- Olympus Zuiko Auto-S 1:1,2/55 mm (first version with thorium glass elements)
- Olympus Zuiko Auto-S 1:1,4/50 mm (only first version "Silvernose" is Radioactive)
- Rikenon AUTO 55mm f/1.4 (22937 CPM rear element)
- SMC Takumar 20mm f/4.5 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/s58y/6802092736/)
- SMC Takumar 35mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- Super Takumar 35mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- SMC Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (only the latest version with 7 elements)
- SMC Macro Takumar 50mm f/4.0 (http://forum.mflenses.com/radioactivity-of-old-manual-lenses-t25714.html)
- Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.) (not all)
- Super Takumar 55mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- SMC Takumar 55mm f/2.0 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- SMC Takumar 85mm f/1.8 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- Super Takumar 6×7 105mm f2.4 (Asahi Optical Co.)
- Steinheil Auto-Quinon 55mm f/1.9 KE mount
- Topcor RE GN 50/1.4 (Lanthanum glass)
- Topcor UV 50mm f/2
- Yashinon-DS 50mm f1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 680 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-DS 50mm f1.7 (Yashica) (Measured at 762 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-DX 50mm f/1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 1359 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-DX 50mm f/1.8 (Yashica)
- Yashinon-DS-M 50mm f/1.4 (Yashica) (Measured at 572 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-DS-M 50mm f/1.7 (Yashica) (Measured at 798 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-DS-M 55mm f/1.2 (Yashica) (Measured at 1056 nSv/h)
- Yashinon-ML 50mm f/1.7 (Yashica) (likely only the older design with ‘YASHICA LENS ML 50mm 1:1.7 YASHICA MADE IN JAPAN’ writings is radioactive)
- Yashinon 55mm f1.2 (Tomioka) (also branded as Cosinon, Chinon, Tominon, Tomioka or Revuenon; Measured at 981 nSv/h)
- Leitz Wetzlar Summicron 5cm f2 (M39)
- Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9
- Voigtlander 50mm Nokton Prominent
- Zenitar-M 50mm f1.7 (Lanthanum glass)
Lenses with elements made of contaminated glass
Some lenses of the 1960s have elements made of glass sorts which include small traces of radioactive rare-earth elements. Sometimes this accidental radioactivity causes a significant yellowing of these lens elements. Some users of such lenses reported in camera blogs that they healed the yellowing by exposing these lenses to the ultraviolet light of the sun. The procedure needs several days of sunny weather to have a positive effect. Lens elements with such yellowing radioactive impurity are in the following lenses:
- Minolta MC W. Rokkor-SI 1:2.5 28mm (early variant, before radioactive glass impurity could be banned)
- Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 1:1.2 58mm (early variant, before radioactive glass impurity could be banned)
The healing of yellowing by sunlight is also reported for some lenses with thorium glass elements, for example for the Nikkor 35mm f/1.4 lens and the Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens.