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FURNISHINGS : Decorative Collectibles May be Hazardous to Your Health


The idea these days is to use your decorative collectibles instead of just admiring them. Items like turn-of-the-century teddy bears, celluloid trays, colorful dishware and funky old radios and lamps are fun to use.

But beware.

"Hazardous items show up more frequently than you might imagine," says Terry Kovel, an antiques commentator who tracks mishaps involving collectibles. An example is an early 20th century ceramic jug that contains radium. One manufacturer was Radium Ore Revigator Co.

"People were supposed to fill it with water and drink it for their health," Kovel says. "Now we know that radium is a carcinogen and these crocks shouldn't be kept, but recently I visited a house and there were two right in the dining room."

Old watches with luminous radium dials are safe so long as they are covered with a crystal, but the naked dials are being used in some modern costume jewelry and can pose a hazard if worn frequently.

Other collectibles to beware of are china and glass dishes made before 1950. Many have lead-based glazes. Used for display, they are fine. But don't serve or store food in them, Kovel advises in her new book, "Antiques & Collectibles Price List" (Crown, $11.95). The book, written with her husband, Ralph, has a section on hazards associated with collectibles.

Celluloid, an early form plastic with a shiny beige-yellow color that makes it look like yellowed ivory, was used in making everything from dolls to dresser trays. It is flammable when overheated and gives off a sour, vinegar-like odor when it starts to break down. Items should be thrown away when this happens, she says, because there's no way to reverse the deterioration.

Collectibles were undoubtedly responsible for only a fraction of the 22,500 deaths and 3.4 million disabling injuries suffered in home accidents in 1989, says Robert L. O'Brien, public relations director of the National Safety Council in Chicago. Still, it pays to beware of potential dangers.

Tack small rugs to the floor or place them over a foam rubber pad to keep them from sliding. Don't store foodstuffs in old medicine bottles, even if you wash them first, and flush down the toilet any medication found in them.

Don't use small electric appliances that are more than 30 years old. Wiring could be frayed, they could be poorly grounded and inadequately shielded, and they might contain asbestos.

If you have antique firearms, be sure they are not loaded and never allow children to play with them. Items which children might play with or use are of greatest concern. Old toys with lead-based paint or sharp edges and stuffed toys with easily-removed glass eyes on metal pins which can be swallowed are hazards.

Old nursery furniture such as cribs also can pose hazards. They may have lead-based paint that can be poisonous if swallowed. Decorative cut-outs and slats can cause suffocation if they are spaced far enough apart so an infant can squeeze his head through. Make sure a mattress goes all the way to the edges of the crib, and don't allow active children to use old high chairs and cradles which are easily tipped, safety experts advise.

"Crib slats have to be no wider than 2 3/8 inches to meet current safety standards," says Dan Rumelt, acting public affairs director of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Washington. Use the same caution for antiques and collectibles that you would use for new items, he adds.

While collectibles have the potential to hurt you, it's more likely that you'll damage them through improper care, says Kovel.

Some common errors include washing ivory to make it white. The characteristic yellow patina of age is preferred by collectors, and washing can reduce its value by half. Cleaning and polishing coins is also a mistake since it reduces their value. And be sure real gold leaf is used if chipped gold leaf frames or other objects are refinished.

Dishwashers are a modern convenience, but they don't do well by some old dishware. Eventually, Kovel says, the gold designs on china and glass will fade if washed in the dishwasher. Don't put pottery or porcelain with thin black lines known as crazing in the dishwasher. The heat from drying can cause the remaining glaze to flake off.

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