Several million home smoke detectors will be sold this year, yet the torrid sales pace of the past three years still has not reached its peak. Added to the natural desire of people to be alerted to a home fire before it is too late are many state building codes requiring the installation of such detectors for newly built and, soon, many older houses. There are two types of smoke detectors — the ionization kind and the photoelectric design. A controversy has arisen over the risks to people from the ionization type detector that consumers need to know about before purchase. Critics of the ionization detector charge that the radioactive material — Americium-241 — presents a hazard to workers who manufacture the product, to residents of homes, to firefighters and to future generations. Since photoelectric type detectors are better in alerting people to the most common casualty-producing smoldering fire, these critics urge consumers to avoid the Americium-laden detector.
Supporters of the ionization alarm claim that the amount of Americium is tiny and that the chances of exposure are negligible. This is General Electric’s position as a major seller of this kind of alarm.
But Dr. Karl Z. Morgan of the Georgia Institute of Technology disagrees. The world famous health physicist says that “some Americium will certainly seep into the soil and water. . . . Even though the risk may be small — and I’m not saying it is — when you have millions of these smoke detectors, and you multiply a ‘small risk’ by a large number, the risk can be much larger.”
Dr. Edward Martell, a radiochemist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., believes the widespread distribution of radioactive smoke detectors to be “grossly irresponsible.”
PROMOTERS OF THE Ionization alarms say that their design is quicker in its alarm for flameless fires. They neglect to say that most of the fires that produce 12,000 fatalities a year in this country are the smoldering kind. Also, the photoelectric sounds the alarm for flameless fires in ample time to permit escape from the premises, according to the National Bureau of Standards:
There are a number of questions which consumers should ask sellers of smoke detectors. First, why is it so difficult for people to find out whether a smoke detector is one with radioactive material? One prominent advertisement refers to Americium merely as a “space-age element.” Other ads or brochures either do not mention anything about radioactivity or do so in the smallest, obscurely placed print.
Second, why do most manufacturers of the ionization type detector urge the return of used detectors so that they can be deposited in a government licensed, private burial facility? The answer is obvious — to minimize environmental contamination. But the reality is that most of these detectors will not be returned.
Third, since Americium is a powerful cancer-causing substance with a half-life of 458 years, what are the various points, from production of the detector through to its use and disposal, where something could go wrong? Human exposure could occur where workers are handling the material. It could occur during a manual cleaning process of the ionization detector. It could occur during a fire to firefighters or after a fire to residents if the detector is damaged. It could occur if there is a manufacturing defect. One ionization company recalled tens of thousands of its product because the detectors could self-ignite.
THE TRAGEDY IS that 75 percent of detectors sold have been of the ionization variety. Earlier, this month, Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., introduced legislation to prohibit the interstate sale of ionization smoke detectors. Weiss noted that “a safe and reliable alternative to the ionization device is currently available. This is the photoelectric smoke detector which does not contain any radioactive material and has been shown to be effective in saving lives.” He called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend licensing of such radioactive detectors and urged federal housing officials to stop encouraging their sale.
Thomas C. Hayden, deputy superintendent of fire in Ardmore, Pa., supports the case against ionization detectors by showing the ample superiority of photoelectrics in sounding the alarm during smoldering fires. “Real world fires” he notes.
Consumers interested in more information should write to Cong. Ted Weiss, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.