Disposal of Ionization Smoke Detectors

Updated February 21, 2017

Smoke detectors all serve the same function, which is to detect smoke that indicates a fire as quickly and possible and set off an alarm. Detectors give you valuable time to escape the blaze. Smoke detectors use different methods to perform their function, and one type utilises radioactive material to detect smoke in its sensing chamber.


An ionisation smoke detector is a unit that contains a small amount of radioactive material to help it sense the presence of smoke. The smoke particles interrupt a charged current inside the detector and set off the alarm. You can recognise an ionisation smoke detector by its label, which will have the yellow and black international radiation symbol or a warning printed on it, according to the U. S. Fire Administration. The detector's radioactive contents are safe for household use but must be disposed of properly.


The federal government imposes no regulations on the disposal of ionisation smoke detectors because the detectors do not contain enough radioactive material to be harmful in the municipal waste stream, the U. S. Fire Administration advises. Some states and local governmental entities place restrictions on how they must be discarded, however. These regulations generally involve recycling the units rather than simply throwing them in the trash.


Contact your state or local governmental offices to find out whether you must dispose of ionisation smoke detectors in a special manner. Your state or municipality may have a designated location or collection period for old smoke detectors containing radioactive material. If there are no applicable laws, you can throw the unit into your regular garbage once you remove the battery, or you may opt to mail it back to the original manufacturer. Dispose of the batteries separately through an appropriate recycling problem, the Environmental Protection Agency advises.

Time Frame

Ionisation smoke detectors generally have a lifespan of eight to 10 years, so you do not have to worry about disposing of them very often. Do not keep them longer than 10 years, even if they still appear to be working properly, because they could malfunction without your knowledge and fail to warn you of a fire. Write the purchase date of new smoke detectors inside the unit if it is not already pre-printed on the alarm, the U.S. Fire Administration advises, so you will know when replacement is necessary.


Photoelectric smoke detectors are an alternative for people who do not wish to use units that contain radiation. Photoelectric models use a light beam that is broken by smoke particles to trigger the alarm. Both detector types are effective, but ionisation units detect blazing fires more quickly while photoelectric models respond more rapidly to smouldering blazes.

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About the Author

Based in Kissimmee, Fla., Barb Nefer is a freelance writer with over 20 years of experience. She is a mental health counselor, finance coach and travel agency owner. Her work has appeared in such magazines as "The Writer" and "Grit" and she authored the book, "So You Want to Be a Counselor."