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Should radioactive smoke alarms be a compulsory purchase?

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Finn O Hurley

Should radioactive smoke alarms be made a compulsory purchase for all home owners in the UK?

I am going to discuss whether radioactive smoke alarms should be made a compulsory purchase for home owners in the UK.  I will describe how they work and their advantages and disadvantages.  I will also examine an alternative to radioactive smoke alarms and describe its advantages and disadvantages.  Using data from the fire and rescue service I shall identify trends and patterns I have found for fires that have occurred over the last few years, both with, and without smoke alarms.  Finally, based on my research I shall give my opinion on which smoke alarms are the best, whether more than one type of smoke alarm is desirable and whether the purchase of radioactive smoke alarms should be compulsory for home owners in the UK.

Diagram 1[1]


A radioactive smoke alarm works in a similar way to the human nose in that it uses a kind of chemistry to spot unusual molecules (smoke) heading inward.   The alarm contains a radioactive form of a chemical element called Americium 241. The americium 241 is placed beside a small ionising chamber.  The chamber consists of two plates connected to a battery.  As I said, Americium 241 is radioactive which means it is unstable and is trying to stabilise itself by emitting alpha particles.  Alpha particles have a charge of +2, and are made of two protons and two neutrons. Because of their charge, they ionise (combine with other particles to produce positive or negatively charged particles) very quickly.  When the alpha particles enter the ionizing chamber they collide with the air particles it contains and ionize them.  This means that the atoms within the chamber lose one electron, leaving a positively charged atom.

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[7]are detected by alarms, whilst the number of households with non-functioning or absent alarms is decreasing.  This would seem to indicate a greater awareness of fire alarms and fires generally, since the total number of fires is also decreasing.  


Present, operated and raised the alarm

Absent or present but failed to raise the alarm

Total number of fires





















Here is the same data in the form of a chart:






In the table below I separate the statistics for fires in which a smoke alarm was:

  • present and raised the alarm
  • present, operational but did not raise the alarm
  • present but not operating
  • absent.  


This table reveals a general decrease in the number of fires in which a smoke alarm was absent and a slight increase in the numbers of fires that were detected by a working smoke alarm.  Bearing in mind that there was decrease of about 15% in the total number of fires in this period the picture is still an improving one in terms of the number of fires detected by a working alarm.  The numbers of fires not detected by an operational alarm, or an alarm that was operational but did not raise the alarm, remains fairly constant.  This suggests that alarms have either not improved in their reliability over this period or that similar numbers of people are either not maintaining their alarms correctly or are deactivating them due to nuisance alarms.

The trends I have described above are slightly more easy to observe in the pie charts below which show the presence and operation of smoke alarms as a percentage of the fires that occurred in two years, 2000 and 2004



When expressed

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Alpha particles: the nucleus of a helium atom, carrying a positive charge of 2c.  Its proton number and neutron number are both 2 so it is a very stable particle

Americium-a radioactive element.  This means it is unstable and is trying to stabilise itself by emitting particles.

Atom-the smallest part of an element that can take part in a chemical reaction.

Current-a flow of electricity

Electron-an elementary particle that has a negative charge.

Resistor – a piece of electrical apparatus possessing resistance




Queensland Fire and Rescue website

Wilshire Fire and Rescue Service website

Fire Statistics United Kingdom 2004

[1] www.gcse.science.comx

[2] www.explainthatstuff..com/smokedetector.html

[3] Queensland Fire and Rescue website

[4] Wilshire Fire and Rescue Service website

[5] Explainthatstuff.com

[6] Page 37 Fire and Rescue Service Data

[7] NB: The fire service estimate that over four fifths of fires are detected early enough for owners to deal with them themselves and do not involve the actions of the Fire and Rescue Service and so are not included in these statistics

[8]The ratio of fatalities in fires with working alarms compared to those in fires where there is no working alarm or no alarm at all does not take into account the fact that four fifths of fires in dwellings are not even included in the statistics since the presence of a fire alarm alerted the occupiers to the fire so quickly that the services of the Fire and Rescue service were not even required.  The efficiency of smoke alarms is therefore vastly underestimated.

...read more.

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