Smoke Alarms: Avoid placing in trash

Day 14 – We welcomed in the New Year with the ear piercing sound of our smoke alarm going off. The first time it happened, I wasn’t too concerned. However, when it happened a second and third time, I became a bit more worried. Of course the fireman of the house was on duty, so I needed to resolve the issue on my own. It appeared the alarm in the girls’ room was the culprit. Once it went off it set the other alarms in the house off, creating a rather uncomfortable situation. Not only was it 12:30am and everyone was tired, but the dogs were very agitated, as well. After a call was made to Captain Gaietto of the CFD, it was decided that I should disconnect the alarm in the girls’ room. This solution did not sit well with me. I kept thinking that maybe I was overlooking something and that maybe there was a legitimate reason the alarm was going off. It was decided that I would disconnect the alarm and in its place put a battery operated smoke alarm (taken from the numerous alarms on the 1st floor of our two-flat) in the room to be on the safe side. By the time we said our goodnights, it was close to 1:30am.

The next morning, the house was still standing and we realized we needed new smoke alarms. The average life span of a home smoke alarm is 10 years. Our’s were 15 years old. So, $250 later we had ourselves six new smoke alarms (two of them with carbon monoxide detection) . Now, the question was, “What do we do with our old smoke alarms?”

There are two types of smoke alarms, photoelectric and ionization. Photoelectric alarms can be disposed of in the trash (after taking out the batteries). Though, it is suggested that you try to recycle them. Ionization alarms contain a very small amount of radiation. They should not be put in the household trash. Guess which ones we have?

There are some companies that will take back your old smoke alarms. First Alert is one of those companies. They will take up to four smoke alarms at no cost. They have to be First Alert, BRK or Onelink brand. There is a fee if you have more than four alarms to send back.

Sadly, our alarms are FireX, owned by Kiddie and they do not have a take back program. So, I was on the hunt to find somewhere to send my outdated ionization alarms.

The City of Chicago’s Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility (1150 North Branch Street) does not accept ionization alarms. I could not find any municipalities that did. I found various companies that offer a disposal kit for numerous smoke alarms for a fee. I also found an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) article about the disposal of ionization alarms.

“There is no health threat from ionization smoke detectors as long as the detector is not damaged and used as directed. Do not tamper with your smoke detectors, as it could damage the shielding around the radioactive source inside of them. There are no special disposal instructions for ionization smoke detectors. They may be thrown away with household garbage, or your community may have a separate recycling program.” – EPA

I found this section rather disturbing. Does the EPA not realize that when trash is collected it is put in a truck and then compacted? I would think that it is highly likely that a smoke alarm placed in the trash would be damaged.

Ionization alarms have very small amounts of Americium-241, a man-made radioactive material. The EPA goes on to give this warning about Americium-241:

“There is no health risk from americium in smoke detectors as long as the detector is not tampered with and is used as directed. When disposing of a smoke detector, follow manufacturer instructions or check with your local fire department for instructions.” – EPA

“Am-241 is primarily an alpha emitter, but also emits some gamma rays. It poses a more significant risk if ingested (swallowed) or inhaled. Once in the body, it tends to concentrate in the bone, liver, and muscle. Americium can stay in the body for decades and continue to expose the surrounding tissues to radiation, increasing the risk of developing cancer.” – EPA

So, which is it? Throw ionization alarms in your trash or contact your local fire department? And this is why people get confused and frustrated. Way too often there are no clear instructions on how to recycle and/or dispose of potentially harmful materials.

You know there is something seriously wrong when you don’t find smoke alarms on Illinois EPA’s One Day Household Hazardous Waste Collection list (which occurs in the spring and fall). They are found on the unacceptable waste list, alongside explosives, controlled substances and institutional waste.

My CFD contact got in touch with a person in the Haz Mat division of the department. He said to take the alarms to the city’s Household Chemical and Computer Recycling center. When he was told that the facility does not accept the alarms, he said he would try contacting someone else. Well, that was a few days ago and we have not heard back. So, it appears that there are no clear guidelines in Chicago for properly disposing of an ionization smoke alarm. I have decided that I will be purchasing a disposal kit from Curie Services. If I would have started saving for the proper disposal of my smoke alarms on the day they were purchased, it would have cost me less than one cent a day. I think that’s a pretty good investment for some peace of mind and knowing that I am not responsible for leaking radioactive material into the environment. The 1 gallon kit (4-5 alarms) will fit my needs.

Sadly, many will dispose of their ionization smoke alarms in the trash, either not knowing the risk or just not caring. Others that would like to responsibly dispose of the devices will not find many free options and for some it’s just not in the budget to pay for disposal. I guess the best thing to do is to make sure any future smoke detectors are purchased from companies that will take them back.

Lastly, the National Fire Protection Association shares these tips for smoke detector maintenance:

  • Smoke alarms should be maintained according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month using the test button.
  • Make sure everyone in the home understands the sound of the smoke alarm and knows how to respond.
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning to keep smoke alarms working well. The instructions are included in the package or can be found on the internet.
  • Smoke alarms with non-replaceable 10-year batteries are designed to remain effective for up to 10 years. If the alarm chirps, warning that the battery is low, replace the entire smoke alarm right away.
  • Smoke alarms with any other type of battery need a new battery at least once a year. If that alarm chirps, warning the battery is low, replace the battery right away.
  • When replacing a battery, follow manufacturer’s list of batteries on the back of the alarm or manufacturer’s instructions. Manufacturer’s instructions are specific to the batteries (brand and model) that must be used. The smoke alarm may not work properly if a different kind of battery is used.

Tomorrow, meat consumption and the need to cut back.