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The Straight Dope


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You are my last resort. In the TV series The Flintstones, what was Barney Rubble's job? We all know that Fred worked at the quarry, but Barney's job was never directly referred to, except in a couple episodes where he worked as a TV repossessor or a short-order chef, after having been fired from his regular (unknown) job. Please help! --Nancy B., Chicago

I love this job. Where else would I get the chance to be on the front lines of journalism, tracking down the questions all America is buzzing about? Actually, Barney's occupation was left up in the air in the early years of the series, which ran 166 episodes from 1960 through 1966. The folks at Hanna-Barbera, the studio that created the series, say Barney was a TV repossessor in one episode and a geological engineer in another--not your typical white-collar career path, but hey, it's the cartoons. They don't recall him being a short-order cook but admit it's possible. In later years Barney settled into a more comfortable existence working with Fred at the quarry. In one episode he was even made Fred's boss by Mr. Slate, the head dude.

The problem with settling questions like this is that TV continuity ain't what it could be. In one episode, for example, Mr. Slate's first name was George and in another it was Sam. Once his company was called the Slate Rock and Gravel Company and another time Bedrock Quarry and Gravel. A little disconcerting, especially for hard-core Flintstones viewers, whose grip on reality has to be pretty shaky to start with. You TV guys should try to be more careful.

One of the presents my wife and I got at our wedding was an original 14-inch Fiestaware cut plate, given to us by my grandfather. The plate is our favorite color: red. (Well, Fiesta calls it red, but actually it's more of a red-orange.) While we were admiring the plate my mother had to throw in her customary wet blanket. "You be careful!" she said. "Don't eat off that plate or let food sit on it! I read in an article that red-colored Fiestaware is highly radioactive."

My wife didn't buy this for a second, but I scare easily. Cecil, is red Fiestaware really radioactive? Is there a serious danger or is it one of those deals where we'd have to eat 600 meals a day off the thing for 3,000 years before we'd be in real danger? And why red? --Max Shenk, Alexandria, Virginia

You'd better sit down for this, lad. The pigment in red Fiestaware contains, among other things, uranium oxide. Homer Laughlin China Company, which began making Fiestaware in 1936, was forced to discontinue the red version in 1943 so the uranium could be used to make atom bombs instead. Gives you pause, no? Well, don't get too alarmed. The actual amount of radioactivity is extremely low--less than the normal background radiation you get from rocks and stuff. Homer Laughlin says they've kept tabs on the workers who used to make the stuff--who obviously were at greater risk than the end users--and they've never detected any unusual health problems.

The real problem, if in fact it's a problem, is that uranium is a heavy metal, as is lead, another red Fiestaware ingredient. In 1981 the New York State Department of Health warned that both could leach into food, particularly if it's acidic. Eat enough tomato sauce or whatever off red Fiestaware, they argued, and you could wind up with stomach disorders, kidney dysfunction, and God knows what else.

Homer Laughlin disputes this. One company official told me he and his family eat off red Fiestaware all the time, and says you'd only run into trouble if you ate acidic foods off the stuff for years and never washed the dishes. If that's true I have an old college roommate whose days are numbered, but normal humans are probably in the clear. If you're still concerned, hang the dish on the wall instead of eating off it.

Fiestaware, incidentally, is being made again after a 14-year hiatus. There's no lead in it now and no red either, unfortunately. Instead we get trendy colors like black--a regrettable surrender to fashion that has also afflicted such noble products as the lava lamp. I blame it all on MTV.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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