New report demonstrates need for improvement

MADISON — A manufacturer-run program for collecting mercury thermostats is failing to keep dangerous toxins out of the trash, threatening children’s health and the environment in many states including Wisconsin, according to a new report released today by a multi-state coalition of groups fighting mercury pollution.

“In the last decade, the voluntary industry-led program to collect mercury thermostats recycled less than one in ten, resulting in 50 tons of mercury being improperly discarded,” said Tyson Cook, staff scientist at Clean Wisconsin. “And with Wisconsin’s poor collection rates falling even further, there is vast room for improvement.”

The report, Turning Up the Heat II, also found that states that provide a nominal financial incentive for recycling mercury thermostat collection are highly effective. For instance, in Texas the voluntary industry-run collection program collected less than 5,000 thermostats in 2011. By contrast, Maine, which offers a $5 incentive for each mercury thermostat recycled, collected 6,600 with a population 20 times smaller.

While a state law passed in October 2009 bans the sale of non-essential products containing mercury, including thermostats, no Wisconsin law addresses the disposal of existing thermostats.

A neurotoxin, chronic exposure to mercury potentially results in memory loss, speech difficulties, troubles with vision, and cardiovascular problems in adults. It can also critically affect development, and an estimated 5,000 to 9,000 children born in Wisconsin every year are at risk of developmental and cognitive issues as a result of mercury consumption. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health currently list every inland body of water in the state under a fish consumption advisory because of mercury pollution.

“It only takes one gram of mercury a year, less than the amount in a single thermostat, to contaminate a 20-acre lake over time,” said Cook. “When a voluntary program fails to work, as this one has, we have to engage the industry in more aggressive measures to make manufacturers responsible for these products at the end of their life.”

Wisconsin has such a model in its successful Electronic Waste recycling (E-Cycle) program, which now has more than 400 collection sites in 69 of the state’s 72 counties, with about 100 million pounds of electronics collected in the first three years.

“Wisconsin’s e-waste law provides a great model for keeping toxic mercury from thermostats out of Wisconsin’s environment,” said Cook. “The report released today highlights a big problem with an easy fix. It’s time to make industry responsible for their products at the end of their life and engage them in more aggressive measures like financial incentives for mercury thermostat recycling.”