Geological Collections


Geological collections include vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, minerals, and rocks. Although these materials may not seem harmful, some specimens may be inherently hazardous in ways that are not immediately or visually obvious. Examples include:

  • Radioactive minerals found in collections
    • Autunite (hydrated calcium uranium phosphate)
    • Brannerite (uranium titanate)
    • Carnotite (potassium uranium vanadate)
    • Uraninite (uranium dioxide)
  • Specimens that may give hazardous emissions
    • Cinnabar may emit mercury vapor that can cause skin and eye irritation, and even damage internal organs if exposed to a high quantity
    • Fossils and minerals containing uranium may emit radon gas, a harmful colorless and odorless gas that may irradiate sensitive tissues if inhaled

Asbestos – may be found in its mineral form in geological collections or in building materials. Asbestos is highly friable and particulates will release from binding materials by rubbing, filing, scraping, crushing, cutting, etc. These asbestos particulates are hazardous when inhaled. Asbestos mineral specimens will also break down easily if manipulated, but hazards may be avoided through cautious handling.

During the late 19th century until the late 20th century, asbestos was commonly used as a filler, mixed with a variety of materials such as construction materials and supplies used in the construction of exhibits [link to exhibit hazards]. It can be difficult to know if asbestos was used in building or exhibition materials, so it is best to treat historical artifacts and construction as a possible health issue and take appropriate precaution.


Confirm that collection specimens have been identified and labeled in order to know which are radioactive or could emit dangerous vapors or substances.


For a list of naturally-occurring radioactive minerals, see the chart on the Mineralogy Database website.


There are wipe tests and radon meters available for purchase on-line to detect and measure radon in storage areas and work surfaces.


Asbestos specimens may be identified by geologists, while building materials may be more difficult to test. Samples of construction materials may be studied microscopically for traces of asbestos, but it is safe to assume that materials produced before 1975 include asbestos, unless manufacturing labels or information concludes otherwise.

For an outlined procedure on the collection of asbestos samples, see the National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram on “Health and Safety Risks of Asbestos” in the Additional Resources section below.



Immediate symptoms of radiation exposure range from nausea and skin irritation to a sore throat. Exposure overtime may lead to more serious symptoms, such as cancer and birth defects.


Staff working in storage areas with radon emissions are in danger of inhalation of the radioactive gas, which could destroy lung tissue and potentially lead to lung cancer.


Asbestos does not break down in the body, so the longer a person is exposed to asbestos, the more it will build up. The severity of the symptoms depends upon the amount of exposure, but symptoms can take years to develop.


When handling geological specimens, employees should always follow these safety precautions:

  • Wear person protection equipment (PPE) to protect the body.
  • Wash hands after handing specimens.
  • Label storage areas with hazardous materials signage.


  • Limit the specimen size to prevent build-up of a large amount of radiation.
  • Store the specimen in a sealed, transparent, and labeled container so it may be identified without extra handling.
  • Do not store specimens in an area of heavy traffic where people spend a lot of time working.
  • Store in a ventilated mineral storage cabinet with lead containers to act as a barrier for highly radioactive specimens.
  • Do not smoke, eat, or sleep near the specimens.
  • Wear a respirator if working for a prolonged time with minerals that may emit radioactive dust.


  • Outfit the storage areas with radon detection equipment.
  • Keep the storage area well-ventilated to prevent the build-up of radon gas.
  • Wear a respirator if working for a prolonged time with minerals that may emit radon.


  • Vacuum storage areas with a High Energy Particulate Air (HEPA) vacuum to remove dust that may be hazardous.
  • Bag all geological specimens separately in labeled and closable polyethylene bags to prevent inhalation of radioactive dust.
  • Wear a respirator if working for a prolonged time with asbestos-containing materials.

Case Studies

In addition to placing all geological specimens in separate polyethylene bags to prevent radon dust and other exposure, the American Museum of Natural History requires employees working with the collection to wear radiation badges. The badges may be purchased from Landauer, Inc. and record the amount of radioactivity in the collection. The badges are sent to the company once a month to interpret data and determine the safety of working with the museum’s collection. Information on the badges is available on the Landauer website.

The Society of Mineral Museum Professionals website offers two reports produced by museums on the proper handling of their geological collections.

  1. The first report on “Radioactive Specimens in Museum Collections” was produced by The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA.
  2. The second report on “Procedures for Management of Radioactive Mineral Specimens (1996)” was produced by the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum, Golden, CO

Additional Resources:

Several of the National Park Service Conserve O Gram leaflets listed in the sections on Security, Fire and Curatorial Safety and Natural History Specimens provide specific information on this topic. These leaflets are available online here. Of particular interest on this topic are:

The Mineralogy Database website offers a section on “Radioactivity in Minerals”, including a table of radioactive minerals.

For information on asbestos and asbestos training materials, visit the OSHA webpage on asbestos.

Howie, Frank M. 1992. The Care and Conservation of Geological Material: Minerals, Rocks, Meteorites, and Lunar Finds. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

McCullough, Gavin. “Radon Hazards, Detection, Mitigation.” National Park Service website. On-line.