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Smoke Detectors

Most common smoke detectors (Fig. 13-2) contain a small amount of 241Am, a radioactive isotope. 241Am is produced and recovered from nuclear reactors. Alpha particles emitted by the decays of 241Am ionize the air (split the air molecules into electrons and positive ions) and generate a small current of electricity that is measured by a current-sensitive circuit. When smoke enters the detector, ions become attached to the smoke particles, which causes a decrease in the detector current. When this happens, an alarm sounds. These detectors provide warning for people to leave burning homes safely. Many lives have been saved by the their use.

Because the distance alpha particles travel in air is so short, there is no risk of being exposed to radiation by having a smoke detector in the house. Since ionization-type smoke detectors contain radioactive materials, they should be recycled or disposed of as radioactive waste. It is important to follow the instructions that come with the smoke alarm when they need to be discarded.

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