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Disposal of Smoke Alarms

Tech Talk Provides Timely Advice

The United States Fire Administration provides many resources to inspectors through training, education, and timely correspondence.  Tech Talk provides accurate and timely information on topics of interest to the fire protection community. Topics are selected based on inquiries and suggestions that USFA receives from readers.  Recently the second edition of Tech Talk was released and contains great information on disposal of Smoke Alarms.

The need for proper disposal typically occurs after the detectors are replaced (after 10 years).  Depending on the type of smoke alarm and where you live may determine if a smoke alarm requires special disposal.  Smoke alarms typically are one of two types.  The first is photoelectric and the second is ionization type (there are some smoke alarms which contain both technologies).  The concern is that ionization type smoke alarms contain a very tiny amount of radiation.

Highlights from the Tech Talk Include:

How to tell the difference

Smoke Alarms Save LivesIf a smoke detector contains radioactive material, it is required by law to have a warning label on the body of the smoke detector. The label is usually located at the “top” of the detector, facing the mounting base that attaches to the ceiling or wall. Remove the smoke detector from its base, and look at the label. A typical label might read:  This product is designed to detect products of combustion using ionization technology. It contains 0.9 microcurie of Americium 241, a radioactive material.

The label may have the international symbol for radiation on the label.  If a smoke Detector does not include either the warning or the radiation symbol on the label, and if there is no evidence that the label has been removed or destroyed, it is safe to assume that the device does not contain any radioactive material. If the label has been removed or destroyed, it is best to treat the device as if it is an ionization unit, and dispose of it as described below.

View the entire tech talk


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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Nick markowitz Jr. December 19, 2009, 12:26 pm

    This issue has been discussed on many different alarm dealer boards over the years and it is always the same answer. Check with local and state waste recycling regulations.
    It seems to me to be a non issue nothing has changed in 20+ years.
    Although I do not think it is a good idea to just toss these smokes in the trash no one wants to deal with the issue because the amount of radiation is so minimal .
    How ever everyone is freaked out over an even smaller amount of mercury in fluorescent light bulbs.
    can we for once get a real recycling standard put forth either we recycle or not .
    and lets stop wasting everyone’s time on a non issue if it is such.
    Even the smoke manufacturers who make them do not want them back. Or if they do they charge a fee high enough to not let any one do it.

  • Brian Dove December 21, 2009, 9:52 am

    The last thing America needs right now is government mandated recycling standards or a so called non profit agency developing them and selling the books to our government officials for $1,000 a whack that have to be bought every three years.

    If nothing has really changed in the last 20+ years and what we have been doing is working (show me the damage throwing these things away has done) then why change? We don’t need another group of busy bodies deciding what is good trash and what is bad trash. Nor do we need another way for government to introduce an unregulated tax (sometimes called a fine) and create one more layer of code enforcement that has no practical way to enforce it.

    What – are we going to have garbage police and how you going to prove that so and so actually was the one who threw the detector in the trash? Maybe we’ll get to see Emily on CSI Miami solve an Ionization Smoke Detector disposal crime.

    Residential Fire Sprinklers get a thumbs up because there is LIVING proof they save lives and are very cost effective. This isssue gets a thumbs down because there is no proof it saves any lives, it is not cost effective to implement it, and there is no way to enforce it.

    My vote is the municipal waste stream.

  • Paul Dove December 23, 2009, 12:45 pm


    Didn’t you realize that the radioactive isotopes have markers on them for tracking back the manufacturers, suppliers and purchasers…..that was solved on CSI NY a few episodes ago 🙂

    In all seriousness, I agree.

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