Tritium Exit Signs Present a
Challenge in Handling and Disposal
Exit signs pointing the way out of buildings
and airplanes probably have saved many lives during emergencies
since being required by state laws in the 1930s.
However, exit signs require proper handling and disposal to
protect public health and the environment, especially those
containing the radioactive material tritium.
While the benefit of tritium exit signs is that
they glow even when they have no electrical power or batteries, they
also must be isolated from other wastes during disposal, since they
may and often do contaminate scrap metal from demolition sites. For
this reason, tritium exits signs are regulated by the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission, and proper disposal of the signs is required
once they are no longer used.
While many large commercial and government
entities are aware of the requirements for use and disposal, many
small businesses are unaware of the NRC requirements, leading to the
improper disposal of tritium exit signs in industrial or municipal
landfills, or worse, their being sold over the Internet.
An estimated 2 million tritium exit signs have
been sold in the
The number of signs in use
now and where they are located is unknown, given that there is
limited tracking of the purchase, use, or disposal of the signs and
that tritium exit signs have a usable life ranging from ten to
Tritium Could Cause Both
Health Risks and Economic Costs and Liabilities
Should a tritium exit sign - which contains
tritium-filled glass tubes - break, its contents could pose a risk
to those located in the near vicinity.
They could be exposed to tritium gas or tritiated water from
the tritium that has escaped into the environment.
Cleaning up tritium after an accident could be
costly, especially for small businesses. Worker or public exposure
to tritium also could present unwanted and unnecessary liabilities.
In addition, tritium may leak from landfills where sign have
been illegally disposed, and could compromise the safety of drinking
EPA Responds to Concerns
about Mismanagement of Tritium Exit Signs
EPA has developed an on-line training course
providing detailed instructions on best practices for the handling
and disposal of tritium exit signs in response to the lack of
awareness on the part of facility owners, management, and
The course contains easy-to-follow, step-by-step guidelines on using
and disposing of tritium exit signs, as well as the rationale for
why proper use and disposal is so important.
To access the training, go to
EPA is currently conducting outreach among
targeted audiences to increase awareness about the problems
associated with tritium exit signs and the advantages of proper
training on the proper use and disposal of tritium exit signs.
EPA is encouraging, where appropriate, the use of alternative
targeted audience for the training includes state and local
officials; school facility managers; operators of public places
including hotels, malls, dorms, and theaters; and green building