Did you know your smoke detectors are regulated by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission? That’s because some smoke detectors contain a small amount of radioactive material called americium 241. Look on the back of the unit for the designation Am 241.
This information may sound “alarming” (so to say), but the NRC assures us that the number of lives saved by having smoke detectors in the household far outweighs the minor risk of the miniscule amount of radioactive material inside the detector. The problem is not so much having nuclear material in your home inside a smoke detector, as it is what happens to it after disposal.
In other words, the reason smoke detectors are safe when installed properly in your home, but not safe in the landfill, is because the AM241 is enclosed in a tiny unit inside the detector and protected by the hard plastic casing. Once in the landfill, this can easily break open and release the radioactive material into the air and water supply.
The Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District, like all other solid waste management entities, has been working hard to provide a good solution for disposal of old smoke detectors. We cannot accept them at our household hazardous waste (HHW) collections, because the companies we contract with to handle HHW are not certified to handle radioactive material. We are currently unable to collect them ourselves at our Additional Recyclables Collection.
So what’s a homeowner to do with an old smoke detector? One option is to store them in a cardboard box or bucket in a cool, dry place while CVSWMD and other Vermont solid waste management entities find a solution.
In the old days, the message used to be to mail your smoke detectors back to the original manufacturer. Now it is illegal to mail smoke detectors through the U.S. Postal Service, and not every manufacturer accepts their products back at the end of use. However, currently CVSWMD is working on an affordable disposal option for residents of our 18 member municipalities.
In the meantime, if you have smoke detectors you want to dispose of immediately, another option is to purchase a mail-back kit from Curie Environmental Services. Please understand that there is a cost associated with recycling smoke alarms because they contain such highly hazardous materials. Mailing smoke detectors properly is not a simple process: the folks at Curie will walk you through how to do it, but be prepared that the shipping process and labelling is entirely different than anything else you have shipped before and certain codes and procedures have to be followed. Curie has instructions on their website, and provide individual telephone support to make the process as simple as possible for the homeowner.
Once you ship your smoke detectors to Curie, the plastic and metal components are separated and recycled locally. The copper, aluminum and ferrous metal are source-separated and shipped for scrap metal recovery locally. The remaining Am-241 foil is shipped for final disposal at a licensed radioactive waste facility. For manufacturers that will accept the alarm back for recycling, Curie will direct ship the entire alarm.
Smoke detectors are just one of the challenging materials that we have to consider at CVSWMD. This highlights a truth we encounter daily: The way materials are made, packaged and processed in our contemporary world produces a problem at the disposal end. A better solution is to find non-hazardous, non-wasteful ways to create products in the first place. Until then, we’ll be here to answer your questions about how to manage your materials at the end of their lives. For information about more hard-to-recycle items, check out our A-Z guide on our websitewww.cvswmd.org/a---z-guide.
This article originally appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, by Cassandra Hemenway the CVSWMD outreach manager.