Ionization chamber smoke detectors contain very small amounts of nuclear material. They might use americium-241, radium-226 or nickel-63. These products detect fires early and can save lives. [We explained how smoke detectors work in greater detail in an earlier blog post.]
The Atomic Energy Commission granted the first license to distribute smoke detectors in 1963. These early models were used mainly in factories, public buildings and warehouses. In 1969, the AEC allowed homeowners to use smoke detectors without the need for a license. Their use in homes expanded in the early 1970s. The NRC took over from the AEC in 1975.
Makers and distributors of smoke detectors must get a license from the NRC. They must show that the smoke detector meets our health, safety and labeling requirements.
Most smoke detectors sold today use 1 microcurie or less of Am-241. They are very safe. A 2001 study found people living in a home with two of these units receive less than 0.002 millirems of radiation dose each year. That is about the dose from space and the earth that an East Coast resident receives in 12 hours. Denver residents receive that dose in about three hours. These doses are part of what is known as “background radiation.”
The radioactive source in the smoke detector is between two layers of metal and sealed inside the ionization chamber. The seal can only be broken by the deliberate use of force, which obviously we discourage. Still, even then it would result in only a small radiation dose. The foil does not break down over time. In a fire, the source would release less than 0.1 percent of its radioactivity. It’s important to understand that none of the sources used in smoke detectors can make anything else radioactive.
What about disposing of smoke detectors? A 1979 analysis looked at the annual dose from normal use and disposal of Am-241 smoke detectors. The study used actual data and assumptions that would overstate the risk. It allowed the NRC to conclude that 10 million unwanted smoke detectors each year can be safely put in the trash.
The 2001 study looked at doses from misuse. It found that a teacher who removed an americium source from a smoke detector and stored it in the classroom could receive 0.009 millirems per year. If the teacher used the source in classroom demonstrations, handling it for 10 hours each year would give less than a 0.001 mrem dose. A person who swallowed the source would receive a 600 mrem dose while it was passing through the body.
I hope this information allays concerns. Unless you remove and swallow the source, your dose from a smoke detector could not be distinguished from what you get throughout your day. And that smoke detector could save your life.
REFRESH is an occasional series during which we revisit previous blog posts. This originally ran on June 11, 2013. We are rerunning now in honor of Fire Prevention Week. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the week was established to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire, which killed more than 250 people, left 100,000 homeless, destroyed more than 17,400 structures and burned more than 2,000 acres. This year’s theme is Smoke Alarms Save Lives: Test Yours Every Month.