22. “Smoke Detectors: A Fad With Fallout”

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

By owning radioactive type smoke detectors, thirteen million American families have come in contact with an element more radioactive than plutonium­239. Americium-241 is the radioactive ingredient in radioactive type smoke detectors.

There are two types of smoke detectors available, photoelectric and radio­active. Americium-241, the active element in radioactive detectors, has a half-life of 460 years. It can translocate from lung to liver to skeleton when in contact with a human body. It can also be inhaled when it is in an oxidized form.

Once in the biosphere, Americium-241 is more of a risk than plutonium. It is readily taken up by animals and plants.

Radioactive smoke detectors work with the aid of a small electric conductor, while photoelectric detectors work when a beam of light, inside the unit, is interrupted by smoke.

The amount of Americium in detectors varies. The average amount in house­hold units is about two microcuries. Those used by factories, office buildings, and hospitals range as high as 15 microcuries. Two microcuries is considered lethal.

The average life of a radioactive type smoke detector is 15 years. If they are not disposed of properly, which is to return them to nuclear reserva­tions, they could filter through garbage dumps emitting radioactive particles into the soil and into the food chain of humans. This soluble element, Americium, when ingested will readily move through the bloodstream.

Smoke detectors are designed to withstand heat up to 1,000 degrees centi­grade. The radioactive particles are protected by a thin gold foil. When it is burned, the Americium will vaporize and oxidize; it is at this point that the danger rises. When it gets into our food the risk is immense.

Due to the lack of publicity concerning this potential hazard and the widespread sale of radioactive type smoke detectors, this story is being nominated as one of the “best censored stories of 1977.”


“Caution! Smoke Detectors May be Dangerous to Your Health,” by McKinly C. Olson, The Progressive, August, 1977, pp. 22-26.