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How to properly dispose of old smokedetectors

How to properly dispose of old smokedetectors

At the start of 2023, Illinois’ updated Smoke Detector Act will officially go into effect, requiring residents to replace their old smoke alarms with detectors that have nonremovable, long-term batteries.

Detectors installed prior to Jan. 1 can remain in place until the standard 10 years from their manufacture date, but most other detectors will be due to a replacement by law. With an influx of alarms likely headed for the landfill, environmental groups such as SCARCE in DuPage County are working to provide eco-friendly options for disposal, but recycling the detectors has proved challenging.

The concern behind simply tossing out old smoke detectors is that radioactive material, which is used in one of the two most common types of detectors, can wind up contaminating the environment. Ionization detectors have a small amount of radioactive material — specifically Americium 241 — while photoelectric detectors don’t have any radioactive material and instead use an LED to help trigger the alarm. While manufacturers — along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — say you can throw out outdated ionization detectors, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County instead recommends checking the manufacturer’s website for mail-back programs and other disposal options.

While the radioactive material in ionization detectors doesn’t pose a risk to consumers as long as they don’t disassemble the unit and break the protective casing, the detectors can break open when picked up curbside by a garbage hauler.

If the detector avoids being crushed during solid waste transport, it is likely to meet its end through the landfill compaction process, allowing for the potential spread of radioactive contamination to the air, soil and groundwater.

Though the amount of radioactive substance in a single detector is extremely small, some environmentalists hold concerns about the long-term effects.

“We know that there’s a radioactive chip in there, so why would we knowingly send radioactive chips to the landfill to poison our water for centuries to come?” said Kay McKeen, SCARCE founder and executive director. “That’s what we’re trying to educate people on, and we’re trying to find ways to recycle them.”


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

Yet there are few opportunities for residents to recycle smoke detectors. Due to the radioactive material, local electronics and household hazardous waste collection sites cannot take them.

The Addison-based SCARCE has found one solution by obtaining grants to collect detectors and send them to a recycling company in New Mexico for about $11 per detector. the company, Curie Environmental Services, provides a mail-back program for ionizing smoke alarms. According to it websiteindividuals looking to recycle their detectors can call for detailed mailing information.

SCARCE has also worked with Elmhurst to set up an ongoing detector collection at village hall. Any detectors received will be sent to Curie.

For those who have First Alert, BRK, Family Gard or Onelink brand detectors, smoke alarm manufacturer First Alert in Aurora has a disposal program for up to four intact ionization detectors. Participants must fill out a customer support form located on the First Alert website.

While McKeen said recycling the detectors is necessary to protect the environment in the long run, “there’s almost no information out there, and people who do care don’t know what to do,” she said. “Even if you know there’s a problem and you’re trying to do the right thing, there’s no easy solution.”

• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.

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