Radioactive Pottery and the Beginning of the Canadian Atomic Age

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on environmental histories of Radiation in Canada edited by Joshua McGuffie and M. Blake Butler.

The atomic age unleashed a cascade of radioactive particles into the Canadian environment. Canadians have interacted most dramatically, most intensely with radiation in “industrial” settings: nuclear power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear weapons. It is in these contexts that Canadians have received dangerous doses of radiation, either through long-term exposure or through sudden accidents. Yet Canadians are far more likely to have been exposed to unexpected low doses of radiation from a much more mundane source: radioactive dinnerware. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia began to manufacture brightly-coloured dinnerware sets sold under the brand name Fiesta. These pieces were instantly popular among a consumer base recovering from the Great Depression, and were quickly copied by ceramics plants in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Despite their bright colours, the pieces were both affordable when compared to fine china and attractive when compared to more plainly decorated dinnerware. In order to produce the vibrant colours at a reasonable price the company turned to a toxic and radioactive ingredient to produce the glaze: uranium.

At the time, uranium was a waste product. The hunt for radium in the 1910s and 1920s had resulted in large stockpiles of uranium oxides that were left over from radium processing. Port Radium in the Northwest Territories, Shinkolobwe in the Belgian Congo, and multiple vanadium mines in the American West produced by-product uranium for which there was little to no use as an industrial product. Almost the only productive use for uranium in this period was as a relatively cheap pigment for ceramics manufacturing.

By the late 1930s, Medalta and the aptly named Medicine Hat Potteries had copied the Fiestaware technique to produce their own dinnerware glazed with uranium. The Medicine Hat pieces, like the real Fiestaware, were popular because of their bright colours and affordability in a depressed market. It is not known exactly how many units of radioactive dinnerware were produced in Medicine Hat, and how many more Fiesta products were imported into Canada; however, the popularity of Fiestaware and its imitators continued after the Second World War. One estimate places the number of radioactive dinnerware manufactured in the United States from 1959 to 1969 alone at over 2 million pieces.1 It should be no surprise, then, that it is not difficult to find bright red-orange ceramics in antique stores that can set off a Geiger counter.

Where the Medicine Hat ceramics plants acquired their uranium is also unknown. At the time of production, the closest source of uranium was the Port Radium mine in the Northwest Territories. Motivated by very high radium prices on the world market, the Port Radium mine on the shore of Great Bear Lake in the North West Territories produced copious amounts of uranium as a by-product from radium refining operations at Port Hope, Ontario. It is easy to speculate that these uranium products could have been procured by the ceramics plants in Alberta and easily shipped on the main rail lines between the two provinces.

The Radium Trail 1934. Source: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

If this was the case, then we have a good idea about the path that uranium traveled before it reached the kitchens and dining rooms of Canadians. Uranium-radium concentrates that had been mined and milled at Port Radium would have been loaded on to barges or steam ships. Then, they would have been floated across Great Bear Lake, up the Mackenzie river to Great Slave Lake, up the Slave river to Lake Athabasca, and then finally up the Athabasca river to the railhead at Waterways, Alberta. From here, the concentrates would have been loaded on to railcars for transportation to the Eldorado refinery at Port Hope, Ontario.

At every point along the way, at the mine, mill, refinery, and during transportation, workers came into close contact with potentially harmful levels of radiation. For all of the cultural associations with radiation and high technology, the technique for moving radium concentrates from the mill to the docks was decidedly low tech: burlap sacks and muscle power.  Members of the Déline Dene, whose traditional territory included the shores of Great Bear Lake,  were hired as labourers to transport the mine concentrates from the mill to the docks and on to the barges. These ore carriers would subsequently rest in close contact with the radioactive cargo during shipment. Workers at the Port Hope refinery carried buckets of radium slurry during frequent mechanical breakdowns and were subject to accidental spills of radioactive material. In 1945, researchers from Montreal reported levels of radon gas inside the Port Radium mine that were alarming even by war-time standards.2 Ceramics plants, like mines and chemical refineries, were also dangerous places to work in the 1930s. While we do not have direct information from the plants in Medicine Hat, it is a reasonable to assume that workers were similarly exposed when they produced radioactive ceramics with uranium.

As scientific attitudes towards chronic low doses of radiation shifted in the 1970s, authorities in the United States conducted tests to determine how much radiation consumers were being exposed to. Scientists quickly determined that ceramic pieces glazed with uranium did not present a significant health threat based on the amount of radium emanating from the glazed ceramic surface. However, there was another pathway for radiation to enter the body via the dinnerware. Any food that came into contact with the pieces had the potential to leach uranium out of the ceramic glaze, especially if the food was acidic. To study this, researchers applied a mild acid to the radioactive dinnerware to simulate acidic food (such as a meal made with tomatoes) and measured the amount of uranium that was leached from the ceramic glaze. Assuming the maximum possible dose involved a person that used the same radioactive dinnerware every day, the researchers concluded that the dinnerware had the potential to deliver a dose of 40 millirems per year. According to the same researchers, 40 millirems per year was not a high enough dose of radiation to produce negative health effects.3 Still, the official line from health administrations in both Canada and the United States was, and continues to be, that radioactive dinnerware should not be used to serve food.

Geiger counter on Fiestaware plate. Image taken by author

In comparison to a single piece of dinnerware, re-construction of historical radiation doses for workers is more difficult. However, increasing interest in chronic low-dose exposure to radiation in the second half of the twentieth century resulted in a multitude of studies of workers in the nuclear industry. In 1987, a paper in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggested that miners at Port Radium were exposed to much higher levels of radon than workers at other uranium mines in Canada. However, the cohort of miners that the paper studied had only started work at the mine in 1942, when production at Port Radium resumed in support of the American nuclear weapons program. The same paper also argued that the studied cohort of miners experienced lung cancer at a rate that was nearly twice as high as the general population.4

While the scientific community began to seriously study the health of uranium miners in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not until the 2000s that any significant scientific attention was paid to the Indigenous ore carriers who lived near Port Radium. In 2005, the Canada-Déline Uranium Table issued its final report. The report concluded that among the cohort of 35 Déline Dene who lived and worked around the Port Radium mine from 1933 to 1960, perhaps one or two extra cases of cancer could be expected. The report also argued, however, that the mental and cultural impacts of the Port Radium mine have been detrimental factors in the health of the community.5

Radioactive dinnerware exists as a strange example, then, of a consumer product that seems to have wrought more harm during its production than during its use by consumers.  A lack of serious medical studies of ceramics workers in Medicine Hat (and perhaps other ceramics plants) who may have been unknowingly exposed to radiation leaves much to be explored. In addition, the laboratory findings of a few experiments with uranium leaching conducted by scientists associated with the American nuclear weapons complex is perhaps cold comfort to potentially thousands of Canadian households who have been otherwise unaware of the radioactive nature of their dinnerware. Personal goods that are radioactive, either intentionally as quack medical devices or luminescent dials on watches, or as a consequence of colour choice in ceramics production, encourages us to re-think the industrial and military connotations of the history of radiation. Does our conception of Canadian nuclear history change if we remember that some of the first artifacts of the atomic age began their journey into Canadian households on the backs of Indigenous people?

1. D. W. Buckley, et al., “Environmental Assessment of Consumer Products Containing Radioactive Material” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, October 1980), 8–2.

2. Robert Bothwell, Eldorado: Canada’s National Uranium Company (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 205. In this period, it was expected that miners would eventually develop lung diseases from poor ventilation. It was also understood that exposure to radon gas was harmful. Still, Eldorado disputed the claim that radon gas concentrations in the Port Radium mine were high enough to increase the relative risk to miners.

3. S. Schneider et al., “Systematic Radiological Assessment of Exemptions for Source and Byproduct Materials” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, June 2001), 3–200. 40 millirems is equivalent to 0.4 millisieverts, the accepted metric unit. Average background radiation in Canada is anywhere from 1.5 to 4 millisieverts a year, depending on the location.

4. G. R. Howe et al., “Lung Cancer Mortality (1950-80) in Relation to Radon Daughter Exposure in a Cohort of Workers at the Eldorado Port Radium Uranium Mine: Possible Modification of Risk by Exposure Rate,” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 79, no. 6 (December 1987): 1255–60.

5. “Canada-Déline Uranium Table Final Report” (Ottawa: Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2005).

Featured image: Fiestaware dinnerware. Image taken by author.
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