Is a Cancer Risk Masquerading as a "Safety Device" in Your Home?

12/10/2016

The cool, crisp weather along with the approaching holidays inspired us to have our chimney swept so that we can enjoy a blazing fire in the fire place. We hired a company owned and operated by local firefighters who include a fire safety inspection with chimney inspection and cleaning.

We knew we were noncompliant with regard to smoke detectors: our antiquated detector, original to our 30 year old house, developed an annoying and persistent chirp that led us to remove it and we had not yet replaced it.

It was time to purchase not only a new whole-house smoke detector, but to invest in detectors for other rooms of our cozy home.

I'm a careful, savvy shopper; I rarely make purchases without investigating all my options, so I read up on smoke detectors before making our investment. What I learned not only frustrated me but revealed another possible piece of the cancer epidemic puzzle plaguing our country.

There are two types of smoke detectors available to the public: ionizing and photoelectric.

Ionizing smoke detectors use the radioactive isotope Americium-241, a byproduct of nuclear waste. This element releases alpha radiation and a small amount of gamma radiation into the house. Manufacturers and the government assure us that these devices are a perfectly safe source of radiation to have in our homes; indeed, radon is a greater health threat to most home owners. Still, I'm not buying it.

We've known for decades that exposure to ionizing radiation increases cancer risks. Our bodies are bombarded by all types of radiation on a daily basis from sources such as cell-phones, electronic devices, routine medical screening, and naturally occurring background radiation; why unneccessarily expose ourselves to additional sources of radiation?

Of greater concern is the disposal of these radioactive devices. While the risk of radiation contamination is considered negligent while the device is intact, the greater danger is when the detector is crushed or disassembeled. When we asked our chimney sweep about disposal he suggested we just "throw it in the trash." Wrong! It needs to be taken to a hazardous waste disposal site.

Some countries and even a few states and municipalities, including my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, have banned ionizing smoke detectors as stand-alone devices, not so much out of radiation concern, but due to the fact that they are considerably less effective in detecting smoldering household fires than the safer photoelectric smoke detectors. Interestingly, both types of devices cost the same to the consumer.

You may not have known that your smoke detector is radioactive because some unscrupulous manufacturers hide the radiation warning underneath the device's casing!

Personally, if I have the option, I don't want additional sources of radiation, particularly ionizing radiation, in my home especially since our family has already endured a cancer occurrence.

One of these detectors in the home may not be too worrisome, but I would be conerned about having multiple radioactive smoke detectors in one dwelling.

Whether or not you are concerned about the risk of radiation exposure from smoke detectors, making an informed choice is the first step in taking authority over one's health and safety. Knowing that the photoelectric devices are actually more effective in detecting smoke in household fires makes the decision a "no brainer."

Resources:

International Association of Fire Fighters' official position on smoke alarms: Spoiler Alert: they say ditch the ionizing alarm:

https://www.smokealarmwarning.org/iaff.html

Ionizing Radiation and Cancer Risks: What Have We Learned From Epidemiology? Ethel S. Gilbert

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2859619/

Wishing you well,
Susan