Clearing the smoke on smoke detectors
by Naomi Mihilewicz
Where can I take an old smoke detector? It seems like a simple enough question that should have a straightforward answer. Unfortunately, the very reason people are concerned about disposing of them properly makes them difficult critters to get rid of. Upon further investigation, here's what I found out.
There are two kinds of smoke detectors, one that uses radioactive material, another that doesn't. Ionization models use a wee bit of Americum 241, a synthetically produced radioactive substance. They are designed to detect hot, fast-burning fires (think grease fire). The second is the photoelectric smoke detector - no radioactive material here. These are best used for detecting smoky, smoldering fires (think mattress fire). Health Canada estimates that 70% of home fires require an ionization model to detect them. You can find models that incorporate both technologies, but no alternatives to the radioactive versions.
So, they are important for our safety, but how important is safety in their disposal? This is the tricky part. Because they contain radioactive material, regular hazardous waste disposal companies won't accept them. The material is relatively harmless if left undisturbed, but if the detectors are broken apart for recycling, exposure risks increase. (The only potential harm from Americum 241 to humans is if it is inhaled or ingested). But, and this is the best part, the Canadian Nuclear Safety and Control Act on Nuclear Substances and Radiation Devices Regulations exempts smoke detectors from any special handling or disposal rules. Based on the minimal amount of radiation they put out, smoke detectors are not considered to be radioactive waste.
What about take-back programs from the manufacturer, you ask? As of
First Alert, one of the main producers and distributors of smoke detectors in North America, will take back their own smoke (and carbon monoxide) detectors for recycling. (Find a depot)
Recycling as many of the parts of the detectors seems like a good idea. The one part that can be recycled is those pesky 9 volt disposable batteries that so many smoke detectors use. But taking them apart much beyond that doesn't seem to be a wise idea. Photoelectric models are recyclable as electronics, but they are not currently accepted in any provincial or private programs.
Since all fingers point to the landfill, what do waste management facilities have to say about the issue? Well, it turns out that they don't really want them either. Many cities have a limit of disposing of ten at a time. Since that's not a problem for most households, municipal landfills remain the only option.
So what can we do? You can make sure that your smoke detectors last their full 10 year life span. Vacuum them twice a year with a brush attachment to keep them clear of dust and cobwebs. When it comes time to replace a smoke detector, choose one that has a lithium battery that will last the full 10 years. And a little manufacturer pestering doesn't hurt: let's let them know we want a better solution for their products.
(Source: Feb. 2009 WasteWatch)
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