For many of us, our home is our place of refuge, comfort, and safety. Yet lurking within so many products in our homes are various substances that pose a threat to our health and our environment. One of these products is the smoke alarm—a product that is supposed to protect us and keep us safe. However depending on the type of smoke alarm you have, you may be exposing yourself to a dangerous substance and contributing to further environmental and ecological stress.
Our modern society is evolving in every area. This is the natural path and rhythm of life. Some praise that we are evolving quickly, while others argue that our evolution is not quick enough. It all really depends what sector of our society, our technology or humanity we are looking at. While we have made excellent progress in many areas, the unfortunate part is that this progress has often come at a high price. One of these negative costs is the introduction of various toxins into our everyday products. As we are learning, the innovation of modern products may offer help in some area, while hurting us in other areas. This isn’t exactly quality progress.
We can see this most evidently today in our human family. An increasing number of humans on this planet are experiencing a decreased quality of life due to increased health problems and environmental degradation. We know without a shadow of a doubt that many of the toxins used in everyday products are carcinogenic, and/or can elicit a whole slew of various symptoms, as well as lead to allergies and other imbalances. We also know that so much of our air, water, land and food today is heavily polluted due to the use and release of many of these toxins. The response of a highly evolved society would naturally be to think of people’s health first, as well as the health of the environment. Such is not yet the case for our society. We still tend to think and make decisions based on convenience, cutting costs and supporting an outdated economy. We think that change is hard, or takes a long time. We also often think that we as consumers are mere pawns in this game. Neither of those statements need be true. It all depends on our choices and actions.
Toxins in Our Homes
Today, the average home is a cornucopia of numerous toxins. Some people know this and are making appropriate changes, but most do not. We have been too heavily conditioned by clever marketing and still live with the trust that the governing agencies are looking out for us and would not approve something if it were not safe. Oh how far from the truth that notion is today! Our human family is beginning to wake up though. We are seeing shifts and movements that are bringing about positive change.
We have raised awareness regarding our food choices, and more people today are choosing organic food options to avoid things like toxic chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified organisms. We have raised awareness regarding our personal care items and cleaning products, and more people are choosing natural options and alternatives. However there are still many areas that most of us are in the dark about. For example, the toxicity of our textiles, including our clothing and bedding, or the many household items that we use daily.
In the past I have written about some toxins that lurk in our everyday products, like lead in our garden hoses, or carcinogenic materials in our electronics. Most of us are probably well aware by now that there is mercury present in compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). These are presently the most commonly sold and widely available choices, having replaced the incandescent light bulb. This example, and others like it, show how we may have benefitted in one area, while creating harm in many others. CFL bulbs helped to increase energy efficiency, but this came at the price of introducing a highly toxic substance—mercury—into our homes, health and environment.
I understand that for many people learning about some of these topics for the first time is extremely intimidating, overwhelming and downright scary. I have talked with too many individuals who feel hopeless and feel it’s better to bury their head in the sand and just carry on with business as usual. However time is running out on many fronts, and on planet Earth today it is anything but business as usual. The good news is that solutions are already available! In fact, they are all around us. We just have to shift our awareness, expand our consciousness and take positive action. As many leading edge thinkers are sharing, our biggest crisis today is in our thinking. If we can amend and shift this, we are immediately presented with solutions for a new way of being and doing that is in alignment with the greater good.
Thanks to people like you and I, who are taking an active interest in our personal well-being, as well as that of our planet, we do have solutions and alternatives at our finger tips. The organic food industry and natural personal care industries have both been steadily growing due to the choices we are making. This is how we drive change, not by holding on to what is, even when it isn’t working, but by having the courage to make a new choice. Such is the case when it comes to the common fire alarm that we equip our homes with, as I will share below.
An Alarming Discovery
If you are like most people, you probably haven’t given much thought to the fire alarms present in your home, aside from making sure you have them and they work properly. Let’s face it, most of us barely read our food ingredient labels, let alone other product ingredient or safety labels. Yet today, at a time when our world has become so infiltrated by so many synthetic, chemical, toxic and plainly put dangerous materials, we cannot afford not to know what is in our everyday products. This doesn’t mean that you have to get overwhelmed and obsessively learn the origin and ingredients of everything in your home. Such a task would be daunting to say the least. What it does mean is that you start to pay attention and make changes as needed. I have found this path to work exceptionally well, where there is a good balance between active concern, effective action and personal empowerment.
In the spring of 2014, our basement fire alarm began to act up. Its advertised date of use still had good years on it, but clearly there was a malfunction. My husband removed the unit, and on the next trip into town I was going to pick up a replacement. As I began to inspect the unit something caught my eye though. That being a radioactive symbol on the back of the detector. Shock turned into concern and I began to read what else the fine print said around the symbol. It was just so mind boggling, as you can perhaps imagine, to read that there was radioactive materials in the unit.
Had this been many, many years back, I like most people, would have probably thought something along the lines that it must be safe, otherwise it would not be sold or available to us. However after years of learning the ins and outs of how our society—economy, governments, health agencies and regulating bodies work, my train of thought was very different. I shook my head in disbelief that here was yet another example of how we are harming and poisoning ourselves, while destroying our planet.
I went to the store to get a replacement thinking that surely there were alternate options, as regardless of any supposed safety, I simply did not want to contribute to the nuclear industry. I asked for a sales clerk who was supposed to be knowledgeable in this area. I was hopeful, but they had no knowing of the fact that radioactive material was present in smoke alarms. To make matters worse, they replied back with the line that as I mentioned above is still used by too many trusting consumers in our society: “I am sure it is safe, otherwise it wouldn’t be sold.” If only that were true…
The clerk seemed to be at a loss, so I looked through several options that would be a suitable replacement for my unit and nothing. Every single one had radioactive material in it. I thought this isn’t right, there has to be another way and decided to go back home and do some research.
An Alarming Danger
During my research, I learned that there are two main types of smoke detectors for home use: ionization and photoelectric.
Ionization fire alarms/smoke detectors are the ones that use the radioactive material Americium-241. According to the low level radiation campaign, these are more sensitive to tiny particles of combustion that can’t be seen or smelled, like those emitted by flaming fires.
Photoelectric fire alarms/smoke detectors are more sensitive to the large particles of combustion emitted by smouldering fires.
A few important notes and explanations are necessary here, as these two units act quite different, where even if you did not care about the radioactive substance being present, your safety may still be greatly compromised.
Smoldering fires are the early stages of a fire, before open flames develop. According to Skip Walker of PropertyEvaluation.net:
In tests, ionization alarms will typically respond about 30 to 90 seconds faster to “fast-flame” fires than photoelectric smoke alarms. However, in smoldering fires ionization alarms respond an average of 15 to 50 minutes slower than photoelectric alarms.
Several studies indicate that they will outright fail to activate up to 20-25% of the time. The vast majority of residential fire fatalities are due to smoke inhalation, not from the actual flames and almost two-thirds of fire fatalities occur at night while we sleep.
This is astounding and alarming given that the majority of alarms sold and installed in homes are the ionization alarms. In fact the above source shares that over 90% of alarms in US homes are the ionization ones, with only 5% being the photoelectric kind. Walker has put together a fantastic article on the differences, safety and risk concerns of ionization alarms, and I highly recommend reading it.
While all this may be news to many of us, guidelines and regulations that support photoelectric alarms, and oppose ionization alarms have been around for some years now. In 2010, Albany California Fire Chief Marc McGinn called for the immediate removal of ionization smoke alarms from people’s homes, and their replacement with photoelectric ones. Based on research since the 1970’s, McGinn says the ionization alarms are so inferior to the photoelectric alarms that they are “deadly.” In 2008, the International Association of Firefighters came out with an official statement urging people to replace their ionization devices with photoelectric units. In 2006, the committee that oversees Australia’s smoke alarm standard—CSIRO discovered that ionization smoke alarms in most Australian homes do not activate until “dangerously high and totally unacceptable” levels of smoke. Many other agencies and municipalities have likewise addressed the performance differences of smoke alarms, concluding in their support for photoelectric fire alarms.
So let’s pause for a moment. Perhaps you were thinking up to this point that surely there must be a good reason why the ionization alarms are the main ones used, that can somehow justify the need to use a radioactive substance. But as we just learned, the fire alarm that has a radioactive concern is also the same one that operates in an inferior way during a typical house fire. Most household items today smoulder for a long time before flames are present, and house fire deaths are most commonly caused by smoke inhalation, not the actual flames themselves. As an added bonus, ionization alarms produce more false alarms, which often leads people to disassemble them, putting themselves in more danger.
Effectiveness aside, most of us have these units in our homes and for better or worse have the right to know what dangers are associated with them when it comes to our health.
Health Risks of Ionization Alarms
The radioactive substance Americium-241, found in ionization alarms, emits alpha particles and low energy gamma rays. According to the Low Level Radiation Campaign, Americium-241 emits 85% alpha particles and 8% gamma rays. Alpha particles are the weakest forms of radiation as compared to the other types (beta, gamma, x-ray, neutron), meaning that they cannot penetrate human skin. Sources like the World Nuclear Association naturally claim that detectors with this substance are not a threat to our health, and can even be disposed as part of regular household waste. The World Fire Safety Foundation, as do many other health, environment and public safety agencies don’t agree.
Americium-241 can cause a health risk, especially if inhaled. This can happen most commonly if the unit is tinkered with, opened or broken. According to the EPA site on this topic, we may be directly exposed to gamma radiation from Americium-241 by walking on contaminated land, and may also be exposed to both alpha and gamma radiation by breathing in americium contaminated dust, or drinking contaminated water. Once in the body, Americium-241 tends to concentrate in the bone, liver, and muscle. When inhaled, some Americium-241 remains in the lungs, depending upon the particle size and the chemical form of the americium compound.
Americium-241 poses a significant risk if ingested (swallowed) or inhaled. It can stay in the body for decades and continue to expose the surrounding tissues to both alpha and gamma radiation, increasing the risk of developing cancer.
Exposure to any significant amount of Am-241 is unlikely under normal circumstances.
(“Normal circumstances” do not include trying to access or remove the Am-241 source in a smoke detector!)
Source: Environmental Protection Agency, epa.gov
According to the Confederation of Fire Protection Associations in Europe, in some European countries authorities have forbidden the use of ionization smoke alarms due to the radiation from the radioactive source.
More about the health hazards associated with Americium-241 is shared in the short video below, which is part of the documentary Stop the Children Burning.
We also should think a little broader about this issue, and not just from a self-centered point of view. Even if we play it safe when it comes to these units, think about all of the people who are put at risk daily because they work or live near a nuclear facility, or ionization alarm factory, or are firefighters who have to walk into structures that have these units, or are workers who have to deal with the disposal of these units. The repercussions of these types of issues always run much deeper, and have more implications than often meets the eye. We have to remember, we are all in this together, and what we support with our choices and dollars has many cascading impacts.
If you are one those consumers who likes to look deeper into the workings of our society and the backwards reasoning behind the many choices that seem to make no sense, it won’t surprise you that there is a bigger story here too. All it takes is some simple logic to ask why a unit with poorer performance was pushed into the mainstream market and has now widely infiltrated most homes. What was the motive? What was the logic?
According to the EPA most Americium-241 in the environment originates from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is an unstable (radioactive) material with a half-life of 432.7 years. As it decays, it releases alpha and gamma radiation and changes into Neptunium-237, which is also radioactive. It may be an interesting coincidence, or not, that we now have an industry built to use that Americium-241. There is no secret however, that these alarms are cheaper to manufacture.
Many sources seem to share that the photoelectric alarms are more expensive. However, this is not what I found when I did research amongst several of my local hardware stores. I found that I am able to get a suitable replacement for my alarm that is in the ballpark of $25, for either the ionization one, or the photoelectric one. In fact two models made by Kidde of the different types are exactly the same price. Yes, some alarms can run as low as $10, while others climb to the $60 mark. It all depends on whether they are smoke and carbon monoxide combos or not, ionization-photoelectric combos or not, and what other special features they contain.
To top things off, smoke alarm manufacturers recommend that both types of alarms be installed in every home, or a dual type that contains both technologies. I can understand their concern for people’s safety on the one hand, but naturally one also needs to be a bit skeptical about their good intentions. Any smart manufacturer will make sure that there is a need or problem presented, which their product will somehow solve. Buying one of each of the two different alarms, or the more costly dual alarm for every floor in your home, multiplied by the amount of households and workplaces out there does equate to some lucrative sales after all.
Environmental Concerns & Disposal
In the end, to add fuel to the fire (no pun intended) the ionization alarms are environmental disasters. They cannot be recycled properly due to the different parts and materials used. They absolutely should not be burned, due to the serious levels of carcinogenic substances given off. If they sit in a landfill and slowly begin to break down due to weathering and such, we have to be conscious of the fact that these chemicals are seeping into our soils, waters and air. The “out of sight, out of mind” mentality is simply not going to work for us anymore as the consequences of these and similar products and chemicals are increasingly coming back to harm us.
Many agencies, experts and manufacturers continue to downplay the amount of radioactive substances in these units, saying it is but a tiny amount that does not result in any hazards. I am no longer comforted by this approach, which I have heard used when it comes to questionable ingredients in our food and personal care countless times, due to the cumulative effect. Today nothing is just a tiny or small amount. It all adds up and the combined interactions are simply unpredictable in almost all cases. According to the Fire & Rescue NSW in Australia organization, 10 units or more of ionization alarms constitute as radioactive waste.
When in use, the radioactive material is shielded by a metal chamber inside the device. If dismantled, the radioactive material can become exposed and create various health and environmental problems. Disposal of these units varies by municipality. Some municipal waste disposal sites do not accept ionization alarms due to the radioactive components, even as part of their hazardous household programs. This leaves you to figure out what to do with it. A common recommendation is to give it back to the manufacturer. This however, may not be a simple or practical task. Aside from time considerations, some manufacturers request a fee for taking it back, and you have to consider the cost of shipping as well. This leaves most people to resort to throwing it in the “trash” where it will end up in landfills, eventually making it back to us in one way or another.
Equip Yourself with the Right Information
The intention for this essay began with an interest to investigate possible health and environmental problems associated with smoke alarms that contain the radioactive material Americium-241. In the process of this research however, I found a much bigger concern perhaps about these alarms that dealt with their efficacy. Not only do these devices contain radioactive materials, which ARE A PROBLEM on various levels, but more so they DO NOT ADEQUATELY protect people in the case of fires. Needless to say, I will be sticking with photoelectric alarms from now on.
Ultimately should you have smoke alarms in your home? Yes, and be sure they are in proper working order. This is important for everyone, but especially for high risk homes such as those that include smokers, candle use, gas stoves or furnaces, etc. Should you remove your ionization alarm immediately upon reading this? No. Find a suitable replacement first, and then carefully remove the ionization unit and dispose of in an environmentally sound way.
Always be an alert, wise, and discerning consumer. Our world may be full of toxic land mines today, both inside and outside of our homes, but with proper awareness we will be equipped and empowered to make the best choices for us, and our planet.