Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old x-ray films?

Reader Piper submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have a bunch of old X-Rays hanging around. Various broken bones, MRIs and things like that.

I don’t really want to throw them away (I’m not quite sure why) but I don’t know what to do with them either. I know I’m not the only one that keeps these things because I’m moving into an apartment and found a couple of X-Rays from the previous occupant.

Right now, they live in the bottom of a dresser drawer. That doesn’t take up much space, but it seems silly to have a curiosity like that around but hiding in the bottom of a drawer. I thought about putting them on a window as a decoration, but decided that was just too macabre and weird.

What an interesting question!

First, you should know that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that x-ray films do “not appear to be hazardous waste.” This means that if you have them in your house in an envelope, you’re storing them safely. The films themselves don’t retain any toxic levels of radiation. I was actually worried about this for a while, so I was glad to learn that handling them was fine.

Now, just because you aren’t poisoning yourself by having them around, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should keep them. The next time you go to your doctor’s office, bring along your collection of x-ray films. Ask your doctor which of the x-rays are worth keeping, and which ones you can purge. If you have an on-going medical condition, your doctor will probably instruct you to keep all x-ray films of importance to that condition. However, your doctor will probably tell you an x-ray of a broken wrist you had in the third grade won’t be important to keep.

The x-ray films your doctor recommends you keep should be stored in your personal medical file in your home filing cabinet. If you don’t still have the envelope they came in, ask your doctor if you can buy one from her. They usually run about $1 an envelope (if your doctor even chooses to charge you). I don’t recommend displaying or doing anything crafty with these x-ray films since you or someone close to you might need to access them in a medical emergency.

Best case scenario, your doctor will offer to recycle any x-ray films you don’t need to keep. If she doesn’t, call your local hospital and see if they accept old x-ray films. If neither your doctor or local hospital recycle them, check your county’s website to see if they have a recycling program for such items or if a recycling center in your area does. Most old x-rays have silver in them, which means that they’re relatively valuable in the recycling market. I’ve never had any difficulty finding a recycling center that accepts old x-ray films.

If you want to do something more creative and artsy with your old x-ray films, I suggest only using ones that have out-dated information on them. An image of your bones while you were still growing is probably safer to use than an image of your bones as an adult. Or, if you had a pin put in your ankle, an image before you had the pin put into it would be safer to use since it’s not how your ankle currently looks. X-rays are very personal information and you wouldn’t want it to get into the wrong hands and have to fight an insurance fraud case.

Thank you, Piper, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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28 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old x-ray films?”

  1. posted by Loren on

    If these have any emotional significance, or if you like having them around as a ‘collection’ I think they would look cool in a photo album type display (if you don’t want to hang them on the walls).
    Maybe I am a little macabre myself but I think things like this are really neat. Depending on the age of the x-rays you may also be able to donate them to a school or museum of some kind.

  2. posted by Terry on

    Regarding old Xrays. If you do not want or need to hold on to old Xrays, you can call early childhood programs (daycares, schools, etc.) to see if they would like them for their programs. They can be used to teach young children about bones. Our center even had Xrays of animals from a nearby veterinary clinic. Very cool! They will be well used and enjoyed for years to come. (do let the center or school you donate them to know that they can be recycled so that they do that when the Xrays begin to fall apart).

  3. posted by falnfenix on

    a related suggestion: when getting new medical images done, ask the hospital/imaging center if they can provide them in digital format. most major hospitals and their related imaging satellite centers are switching to digital imaging, and many are no longer printing films unless requested.

    if anything, a CD will take up less space than a large envelope.

  4. posted by Louise on

    A vet in Texas told me that he was required by law to keep any X-rays that his office created. It is possible that similar laws apply to human X-rays. Ask your doctor.

    In any case, it might be simpler to have your primary care doctor store them with your records. Then all the medical stuff would be together and out of your home.

  5. posted by Katie on

    my first thought at reading the question was “make them into a lamp shade for Halloween decorations” but I agree a bit macabre for everyday.

  6. posted by Garth on

    It’s really not a good idea to discard any portion of your medical record. Even x-ray films read as normal can be valuable for comparison in the future if some kind of anomaly turns up in another study. That wrist fracture you had in the third grade is a prime spot for the development of bone spurs. They don’t take much space; just store them.

  7. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Louise — Great advice! Now I’m wondering if my doctor will store the ones she has told me to keep …

  8. posted by Daryl [WhiteHatBlackBox] on

    I’ve never broken a bone, but if I had x-rays lying around, it would be a cool project to make a light box and have them hanging around my house as art. Plus, there would be a cool story to tell friends.

  9. posted by Heidi on

    I’d love to have them for art – send them to me! :0

  10. posted by Dream Mom on

    I would think that the type of x-rays that would be valuable to keep would be if you had a condition where degenerative changes are taking place and this would show the amount of deterioration that has occurred over time. Or possibly, if you had an unusual situation where your condition was very advanced at an early age.

    The person who could best answer that, would be a specialist, to see if you need to keep them. If it’s basic broken bones or regular MRIs, I wouldn’t think you’d need to keep them. After all, if you needed them again, you could order them (of course you’d have to pay for them). That being said, most of the time, if you have a medical issue, the physician will order a new MRI or new x-ray making the ones you have unnecessary. More often than not, you may have had these x-rays done and taken them to a specialist. It has been my experience, that many specialists will repeat the x-rays or even MRIs to have them done at their faciities. My son has a chronic medical condition and that has been my experience over the years.

    I also have some very advanced and complex spine issues, along with spinal surgery a year or so ago. The neurosurgeon, at a major academic medical facility, requested the MRI be done at their facility since I was having minimally invasive back surgery for spinal stenosis and they would perform the surgery using the MRI. Their MRI showed more detail than those done at a typical MRI facility or even an open MRI facility and they would use that during the surgery (since they aren’t cutting you open to see inside). (That’s also what makes minimally invasive surgeries more complex.)

  11. posted by Dream Mom on

    One other thing, if it’s determined that you need them and they were done some time ago, you may want to keep them versus ordering them. It has been my experience with a few places, that after seven years, the medical records were moved to an offsite location and it was very difficult (and time consuming) to locate those original records. Many of these issues have or will be resolved as we move towards digital imaging (Meaning not all providers are there yet.)however that was not the case back then.

  12. posted by martha in mobile on

    I had some x-rays of my cat which I printed (very lightly) in my darkroom and then painted with dilute photo paints. I framed and hung them in my house and called them “interior landscapes.” My friends thought they were very cool and abstract, until I told them they were x-rays of my dead cat. I guess it’s all in the presentation.

  13. posted by Another Deb on

    I have a few X Rays that were donated to me for use in my science classroom. It is useful to have these teaching props which fascinate my students and help me describe “how we know what we know.”

  14. posted by erin malone on

    There are a lot of artists who may be interested in your xrays as well. Many artists specialize in imagery of the body and xrays provide a unique glimpse inside. Perhaps offer them up on freecycle or to a local university art class.

  15. posted by Tim Carlson on

    I’m not sure I understand what harm someone could do with an x-ray of my bones. How does insurance fraud come into the picture? It’s not like they are taking your bank account number.

    Sorry if that’s a naive question.

  16. posted by Miracle Maxine on

    Umm – I’ll be a little hesitant to display my X-rays, since the last one I had was an HSG – a nice image of my uterus and tubes. Definitely not anything I would like my guests and family to comment about.

  17. posted by Cyrano on

    My wife had some x-rays of her ankle that she wanted to throw out. I wanted to shred it just in case, but when I did the shredder had a hard time because the film (it may have been an MRI instead of an X-ray, I’m not sure) was made of some relatively hard plastic-ish stuff.

    I had just remembered a how-to online on making a wallet out of an old keyboard cellophane film, so I made her x-ray into a handy wallet. It is really strong, and best of all, SUPER thin and light. I am pretty minimal when it comes to what I put IN my wallet, so it’s the lightest my back pocket has been in a long time.

  18. posted by Kim on

    I threw out a very old spinal xray when I moved 3 months ago … and now I need it. A bit of funny configuration means I could have problems having an epidural when I give birth in a few months (and being pregnant, it’s not a good idea to get another xray).

    At the time, I could not think of any reason the xray would be useful.

    So from personal experience, and against my usual inclination, I’d say don’t throw out too early – having a copy on your medical records is a good idea.

  19. posted by gypsy packer on

    Hang onto them. Injuries can come back to haunt you. If you can get digital storage, do it.

  20. posted by ziggee on

    How about using them as art??? It would be unique art, but still art


  21. posted by Marie on

    I think this qualified for your request from last year for odd clutter.

  22. posted by Alexis on

    I too have some x-rays of my cat. I have often thought of turning them into some sort of display I just haven’t figured out the best way. I like the light box idea.

  23. posted by George on

    As a science teacher, I’d love to get some old x-rays.

  24. posted by allen on

    i _love_ the idea of having these on display! it couldnt’ be that expensive/hard to build a simple lightbox…

    Now, i just need to break a few bones!

    Am i the only one who has never recived the x-rays from the doctors? I don’t get them, they keep them, and I never thought to ask for them.

  25. posted by Kyle on

    My mother is an ICU nurse and would bring home x-rays to use as stencils for craft projects. It’s really easy to cut with an exact knife.

  26. posted by Freddy on

    Pretty much any facility that takes x-rays recycles them because, as you pointed out, they have silver and are relatively valuable.

  27. posted by Emma on

    Save them for the next solar eclipse (no idea when the next one is though I’m afraid). You can look at a solar eclipse through an xray and it will protect your eyes and show the eclipse nicely.

  28. posted by Khurshid Shaikh on

    I would like to know about the disposal procedure for X-ray film.

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