Smoke Detectors and Radiation

Today, more than 93% of American homes have smoke detectors installed. Since the mid 1960’s these safety devices have proven to be reliable and effective. Recently, however, the concern has risen about the safety of smoke detectors due to the potential of radiation exposure.

Not all smoke detectors contain radiation. There are essentially two types of smoke detectors – ionic chamber and photoelectric. While both contain circuit boards, wiring and batteries, only ionic chamber smoke detectors contain radiation (we’ll talk more about photoelectric later on).

The ionic chamber smoke detector is the most popular choice with American homeowners. They’re inexpensive and considered more effective at detecting smaller amounts of smoke produced by flaming fires.

This type of smoke detector works by using a radioactive material called americium (Am-241) to sense smoke particles. The amount of Am-241 is very small (<35kBq). To put it in perspective, 1 gram of Am-241 provides enough material for 5000 residential smoke detectors. Before we look at Am-241’s purpose, let’s take a look at what exactly Am-241 is and its’ potential health hazards.

Am-241 is a silvery metal that tarnishes slowly in air and is soluble in acid. It has a half life of 432 years and emits alpha rays. In an ionic smoke detector, Am-241 is used in the form of a foil.

Am-241 was discovered in 1945 during the Manhattan Project. According to the Uranium Information Center, the first sample of americium was produced by bombarding plutonium with neutrons in a nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago.

As previously mentioned, Am-241 emits alpha rays. Alpha particles are large – so large that they have trouble penetrating matter such as a sheet of paper or the human body. If alpha particles are ingested or inhaled, however, they can do significant internal damage including cancer. Fortunately, the Am-241 in an ionic smoke detector is protected in a ceramic chamber located within a larger, tamper-proof aluminum chamber. If left undisturbed, the danger of inhalation exposure is negligible.

So, now the question is: How does Am-241 detect smoke particles? Inside the chamber, alpha radiation ionizes the air. A low electric voltage (supplied by a 9Vbattery or 120V household current) is applied across the chamber creating a current that flows through the ionized air. When smoke particles enter the chamber they neutralize the ions. This in turn alters the current resulting in an alarm.

It appears that as long as the ceramic chamber containing the Am-241 is left undisturbed, an ionic smoke detector poses minimal risk to your health. This of course includes keeping old detectors away from children who express the natural curiosity to see how things work.

Another issue arises when it comes time to dispose and replace (suggested replacement is every 10 years) your smoke detectors. What do you do with your discarded unit? The status quo has been to discard them with household trash. Most cities and county officials are becoming alarmed at the sheer number of smoke detectors gathering in local landfills. They are calling upon individuals to take it upon themselves to act responsibly and discard of them properly which includes sending them back to the manufacturer for proper disposal.

At the end of this piece, you will find a list of manufacturers with addresses and/or phone numbers. It is the law that any manufacturer of smoke detectors is required to take back discarded units. You can usually find return instructions in your user’s manual or warranty. If you don’t have this information, contact the manufacturer and ask what their policy is. Typically, you can return used smoke detectors by sending them back via ground or parcel post and labeling box “for disposal”.

Another alternative is to contact your local Waste Management office and find out when the next hazardous waste round-up will occur. (Your city hall should also have the information) At one of these events, you can dispose of not only your old smoke detectors but your old paint, chemicals and other hazardous waste.

Now that you’ve discarded your old detectors, it’s time to replace them with new ones. Here you may decide to stick with the ionic chamber detectors, or consider trying a photoelectric model.

A photoelectric smoke detector uses a light and a sensor (positioned at a 90 degree angle to one another) to detect smoke (picture the letter T with light shooting across the top and the sensor down at the bottom). Under normal circumstances, the light passes straight through. Once smoke enters the chamber, the smoke fills both parts of the T and the light is scattered forcing some of it down the chamber and tripping the sensor which then triggers the alarm. No radiation is used. This type of detector is best at sensing smokey fires such as a smoldering mattress.

Whatever model you choose – just be sure have it installed correctly, keep it clean (vacuum occasionally to remove dust and NEVER paint over a detector) and do monthly tests to make sure it’s functioning and the battery still has juice. Smoke detectors, when installed, removed and disposed of properly are safe, life-saving devices.