Disposal of domestic smoke alarms that contain radioactive material
Smoke alarms are recognised as very important safety devices because of their potential to save lives and property. The most common type of smoke alarm uses a small amount of radioactive material as the method for detection of smoke and other combustion products.
The radioactive material used in modern smoke alarms is americium-241. This particular element does not occur naturally, but its activity in a single domestic smoke alarm is approximately 1/12 that of other (natural) radioactive materials present in one cubic metre of garden soil.
The small amount of americium used, its radiation properties, and chemical and physical form, ensure that its use in smoke alarms does not constitute a hazard to people or the environment. The benefits far outweigh any risks associated with the use of radioactive material.
Disposal of domestic smoke alarms in domestic waste
When a smoke alarm is disposed in domestic waste it is ultimately dispersed throughout a large volume of waste at the landfill or bale-fill waste disposal site. The small amount of radioactive material in smoke alarms is not a health hazard. It does not present a radiation risk to personnel involved in waste handling at resource recovery facilities, landfill and bale-fill operations, the public or the environment.
The health and environmental impacts of disposal of smoke alarms in domestic waste are negligible and less than the potential impacts from collection and keeping them in storage.
Having acknowledged the negligible risks to people and the environment, several international regulatory authorities have approved the disposal of smoke alarms containing radioactive material in domestic waste. These include the National Radiation Protection Board in the United Kingdom, the National Radiation Laboratory in New Zealand, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States of America.
All states and territories of Australia now permit the public to dispose of smoke alarms in domestic waste.
In accordance with international best practice, disposal of small quantities of smoke alarms that contain radioactive material in domestic waste in South Australia was made legal in early 2009 under provisions of the Radiation Protection and Control Act 1982, administered by the Radiation Protection Branch. An exemption under the Act permits up to 2 smoke alarms to be disposed into domestic waste during any period of 7 days.
Labels that give disposal advice
Many smoke alarms that contain radioactive material carry a label advising that they should be disposed by returning them to the supplier or the health department. The Australian Standard for smoke alarms once required smoke alarms that contain radioactive material to display this label.
However, given the national consensus that collection and return of smoke alarms to suppliers and health departments is not warranted, the Australian Standard for smoke alarms no longer requires smoke alarms to display this label. This label can now be ignored when disposing of one or two smoke alarms at a time into domestic waste.
Commercial smoke alarms
Some smoke alarms used in commercial or industrial applications contain a different type or greater amount of radioactive material than domestic smoke alarms. Commercial or industrial smoke alarms may not be suitable for disposal in domestic waste. Advice on the disposal of commercial or industrial smoke alarms should be sought from the Radiation Protection Branch.