What happens if someone swallows the americium found in smoke detectors?

One of the the apartment fixers came and removed the smoke detector and threw it out to replace it with a new one. Looking at the back it says it contains 0.9 microcuries of the radioactive material americium-241.

I’m wondering what if someone opened the metal cap and swallow the button sized americium. Could it cause cancer?

It can cause cancer according to the Hazards section of the wiki: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americium-241

The big problem is you won’t excrete all of it, some will remain in your liver and gonads promoting development of cancer cells there.

But won’t 0.9 microcuries be so small that it couldn’t do damage (maybe I’m wrong).

I’m glad to see this is not “Needs answer fast!”

I suppose the wiki could be wrong but it wouldn’t make sense, even one atom of the stuff emits alpha radiation which can lead to development of cancer cells inside your organs. I’ll leave it to someone who can do math to tell you how many millions of americium atoms are in that small amount. It may not result in cancer for any one person ingesting that amount but statistically it will produce a consistent number of cancer cases if enough people eat the americium from just one smoke detector each.

MicroCuries are a “huge” unit for radioactivity (although of course everything is relative). The aforementioned Wikipedia link refers to a maximum safe level of 0.03 microcuries.

Alpha-radiation is easily stopped by a little water, or air, or paper, or thick dead skin, but sitting inside your body Americium is going to pump damaging energy through your cells at point blank range for several years at a barely diminishing rate. (Biological half life of 50 years in the bones and 20 years in the liver, and a radioactive half life of a couple hundred years.)

And I expect the resulting Neptunium-237, although stable in comparison, is going to have the same heavy metal toxicity.

It depends on how it’s packaged. If it’s encased in a non-reactive material, it’ll probably pass through the digestive system intact with little or no harm to the body. If it breaks up and some of it gets absorbed by your body, it would be very bad.

What would be a good wine pairing to go with it?

I once had a similar concern, and learned much from the SD community:If I put this uranium ore down my underpants what would happen?

If the source sat still in the body it would irradiate some tissue at zero distance, which is harmful, as opposed to being stopped by a little air, as naita points out. But, chemically, americium reacts with acids and also likes to oxidize. It might get digested and moved around atom by atom. In the electrolytic environment of the digestive system, being surrounded with aluminum in electrical contact could enhance its dissolution through galvanic action.

I’d be pretty worried. One of these in the stomach might well be worth an emergency retrieval surgery, in a big hurry.

The maximum permitted “body burden” of americium-241 is 0.03 micro-curies - the amount in your smoke detector is three times that. Of course, if you swallowed the pellet of Am-241 you probably wouldn’t absorb all of it, the question becomes how much would you absorb? In addition to going to the gonads and liver, Am-241 is also a boneseeker, meaning your body will incorporate it into the on-going bone maintenance your body engages in.

If the wiki is to be believed, if you swallowed the 0.9 of Am, you’d absorb about 0.045 μCu, which is above the 0.03 μCu permitted level. That would be bad, and greatly increase your risk of cancer and/or bone problems. Boneseekers can kill the bone cells around them, leading to brittle or even dying, crumbling bones. The technical name for that is osteoradionecrosis, which is bone death due to radiation.

There is also the problem that Am is a heavy metal, which means it’s toxic chemically aside from the radiation problems. I don’t it’s been specifically studied for its chemical toxity, but heavy metals in general can cause cancer, neurological damage, liver and kidney damage, and other effects.

On the other hand, the worst case of exposure on record, Harold McCluskey, died eleven years after exposure from heart disease rather than radiation-related causes or chemical toxity. So… you might be OK for awhile.

This is actually interesting. What commonly available liquid would potentiate its effects, either as a better vector (how easy is americium dissolved?) or, as a booster, such as liquidized banana? Although in isolation the usual banana radiation dosing is negated under normal metabolism.

Thirty times that.

Actually, 0.00045 μCu. (I assume you are going by the “If consumed, americium-241 is excreted within a few days and only 0.05% is absorbed in the blood.” line. So, 0.9 * 0.0005 = 0.00045.)

OK, I admit it - I suck at math. Thanks for the corrections.

Well, the interesting thing is if Wikipedia is right and all that, it sounds like it actually wouldn’t be a problem to swallow a whole bunch of those things… But I have a feeling there is some detail that we’re missing here. I’m not gonna be one to experiment. :slight_smile:

I’m pretty sure that the Am-241 in smoke detectors is encapsulated in some type of foil, so unless you were to grind it into powder, most of it would pass through your body without being absorbed.

This is key. I know when I’ve needed polonium it’s been encapsulated in ceramic beads that were then dispersed in gold foil

A California Cabernet Sauvignon from 2012.

I haven’t been able to find information on the bonding strength of Americium Dioxide … are all these health effects mentioned above for the elemental form? … or does AmO[sub]2[/sub] break apart in HCl? … I don’t believe Americium needs to be free of chemical bonds to be radioactive, so it makes safety sense to use an oxide that won’t escape into the environment …

I really, REALLY hope you are not overly interested in umbrella design.