Tritium Exit Sign Recycling

As opposed to the battery-operated type of signage, the tritium (H-3) exit sign does not rely on the presence of wires or batteries. That fact would seem to simplify the procedure used when recycling such signs. However, because tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, its presence within a sign’s tubing can complicate somewhat the system that ensures full compliance with an established recycling process.

Tritium exit signs

An isotope can be described as the slightly altered version of an original element. The alteration concerns the spin level of the electrons that travel around the atom’s nucleus. One or more of those electrons have fallen down to a lower level, one closer to the nucleus.

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That change in an electron’s spin level produces a small packet of energy, something called a quantum. The product of disintegration, that quantum serves as a signal that radioactive energy has been released into the surrounding environment.

Radioactivity and exit signs

Due to the small size of the hydrogen molecule, the disintegration of its isotope produces only a tiny amount of radioactivity. In fact there are radioactive H-3 isotopes that float freely in the atmosphere. Still, the U.S. government has chosen to oversee both the production and recycling of tritium exit signs. During the production process, the radioactive tritium must be encased in a high impact tube.


Manufacturers are required to put that high impact tube inside of more high impact glass tubing. That regulation is designed to limit the amount of damage that could occur to any of the manufactured signage. Yet government authorities realize that even the extra strong tubing could get cracked or broken.

Inspected and licensed vendors

For that reason, the suppliers and building owners who buy and use exit signs have been asked to inspect them carefully. If their eyes detect any breaks or cracks, then a government agency, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) must be notified. That notification process allows the USNRC to keep track of how much signage remains in good shape, and is therefore ready to be recycled, once it is no longer needed by the building owner, the man or woman who had been using that glowing object overtop of some doorway.

Manufacturing of tritium exit signs

After a manufacturer has made a sign, using the required materials and utilizing the dual tubing, then he or she must arrange for placement of a radioactive label on each tritium-filled item. That same manufacturing plant must make available to anyone who buys one of its products the license number that the U.S. government has assigned to that plant. That requirement plays a key role in the recycling process.

Once a sign leaves the plant where it was made, then that movement must be reported to the USNRC. That way the government can keep track of each sign’s location. It can know who should be inspecting it, to be sure that its tubes remain intact. At the same time, the government can follow the sign’s journey, as it makes its way back to the manufacturer, the spot at which it can be recycled properly.

Redirected to place of origin for recycling

If a building owner decides that he or she no longer wants to have a certain glowing object overtop of a particular door, then he or she must send that item back to the place where it was made. Moreover, he or she needs to let the USNRC know that some tritium-filled signage has been returned to a licensed manufacturing plant. All such requirements help to guarantee the safety of the cycle that permits re-use of designated parts from old signs.

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