NRC Says No Need to Panic – Blue Topaz Regulations in Fact Finding

On July 26, leaders from the jewelry industry will meet with members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Md., to discuss irradiated gem materials, specifically, the testing of imported blue topaz.

Recently, many retail jewelers were informed by Jewelers Vigilance Committee that they may be selling blue topaz in noncompliance with NRC regulations, i.e., without documentation that they had been tested by an NRC-licensed facility. JVC suggested that, while there is no apparent health risk, retailers may want to consider removing said topaz from stock. As a result, many retailers pulled blue topaz from their shelves and are wondering how it may affect Christmas sales. Although it’s likely that none of the blue topaz for sale in this country has been tested—and there is some concern about material that wouldn’t pass muster—jewelers shouldn’t panic just yet.

“We’re on it,” says Cecilia Gardner, chief executive officer and general counsel for Jewelers Vigilance Committee. “We’re leading a delegation to a meeting with the NRC. We hope to get some results from that meeting that will help people decide what to do going forward.”

“Generally these stones are not a health risk,” says David McIntyre, public affairs officer for the NRC. “We just want to make sure there are safeguards in place when dealing with irradiated materials.” McIntyre notes a growing concern that gems are “out there” that “are no longer within this regulatory framework.” Of course, even if jewelers wanted to be compliant, there are no NRC-licensed facilities for testing blue topaz, most of which comes from overseas. While it has been reported that topazes from certain localities in Nigeria and China have remained radioactive long after the normal cooling-down period—some could potentially need 10 years to cool off before falling under the limits set by the NRC—reportedly the levels of radiation in those stones is still low enough not to pose a significant health risk. Nevertheless, some gem dealers, such as Eric Braunwart, president of Columbia Gem House in Vancouver, Wash., still think gems should be tested before being sold. He’s tested his own stones for almost two decades, using an instrument called a Gem Alert.

“We’re really not in an enforcement mode here,” says McIntyre. He hasn’t asked anyone to stop selling blue topaz. “We’re really in an information-gathering mode.”

McIntyre adds, “We want to get together with industry people for three reasons. First, we want to re-establish arrangements whereby somebody would apply for an exempt distribution license to be a clearinghouse for all gems coming into the country, and do this to make sure that these gems are within the regulatory limits. We would like to speak with the jewelry industry to determine whether there is a company that would be willing to do this service.

“Second, we need to be reassured some way that the stones that are already in distribution do not pose any health and safety issue, especially if it’s true that there are gems that have come in that do still have some residual radiation.”

Timing is important for the NRC and the jewelry business. “We know that the Christmas season is coming up,” says McIntyre. “And that’s a big sales point for the industry. We’re sensitive to that.”

The third point of business is an upcoming regulation for accelerator-irradiated materials. “There’s a new deadline, which is a totally different regulatory issue altogether, that just happens to wrap the gemstone industry inside,” McIntyre notes. Prior to now, the NRC has not regulated accelerator- produced radioactive material. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 gave the NRC the authority over accelerator-produced radioactive material. Most of that is medical isotopes. While gemstones may be a very big issue for the jewelry industry, it is a smaller subset of what’s being done with particle accelerators. Congress gave the NRC 18 months to come up with a regulation, putting it on a fast track. The NRC has approved the final rules implementing it. This can be found on the NRC Web site under “key topics.” There should be a reference to a “tool kit” on accelerator materials. This new regulation should take affect sometime around the new year. Accelerator-irradiated (also electron-irradiated) gems will need some kind of regulatory framework similar to reactor-irradiated gemstones. (Think diamond, kunzite, morganite, prasiolite, tourmaline, etc.)

According to the NRC Web site, meeting participants include members of the Division of Material Safety and State Agreements and of the Division of Interagency Liaison and Rulemaking; Rick Krementz, president of the American Gem Trade Association; Cecilia Gardner, chief executive officer and general counsel of Jewelers Vigilance Committee; and Matt Runci, president and chief executive officer of Jewelers of America.

The public is invited to observe this meeting and will have one or more opportunities to communicate with the NRC after the business portion, but before the meeting is adjourned.

“Your readers don’t have to worry about NRC agents in blue windbreakers with big yellow NRC letters on the back coming into their stores,” chuckles McIntyre. “And no, individual retailers will not need to be licensed by the NRC.”

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