This weekend’s fishing opener comes amid new information about Wisconsin’s mercury threat

MADISON — New  analysis shows that Wisconsin’s already impaired waters remain at risk of taking on even more of the harmful toxin from nearly 1 million old mercury-containing thermostats. As anglers throughout Wisconsin prepare to cast lines for the big catch during this weekend’s much-anticipated fishing opener, it’s important to remain aware of the mercury threat and fish consumption guidelines.

“Even in a state with such a great fishing tradition, we are still forced to think twice about the safety of eating our catch,” said Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental organization. “It’s shocking to think, even with all the mercury pollution already in our lakes and streams, that a sizeable threat is looming out there that could make things worse.”

There are an estimated 919,700 wall thermostats that contain mercury in Wisconsin’s residential and commercial buildings, according to analysis performed alongside a Natural Resources Defense Council-commissioned study of the threat in neighboring Illinois. Study consultant Skumatz Economic Research Associates worked with Clean Wisconsin to apply those numbers to Wisconsin using the same methodology to help build public awareness and prompt discussion in favor of higher collection goals.

“Proper disposal of mercury is critical to ensure a healthier future for Wisconsin,” said Cook.  “With fishing being a $1.4 billion business in Wisconsin, this is something that we should take very seriously for our health, our environment and our economy.”

It’s estimated that more than 50,000 mercury-containing thermostats are discarded in Wisconsin each year from Wisconsin’s commercial and residential structures. Wisconsin currently relies on a voluntary industry-led program that has recycled less than one in 10 of those mercury-containing thermostats over the last decade, resulting in tons of mercury being improperly discarded. A bipartisan bill introduced last legislative session encouraged a more aggressive recycling program, but did not pass into law.

“With nearly 1 million additional mercury-containing thermostats in Wisconsin, there is a clear need for a stronger collection and recycling program,” said Cook. “This needs to be a top priority moving forward.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) currently lists every inland body of water in Wisconsin under fish consumption advisories as a result of mercury contamination. Mercury is a potent toxin that can affect the brain, liver and kidneys, and cause developmental disorders in children. Young children and developing fetuses are especially at risk for problems, including lower IQs, reduced memory, and reduced language skills.  EPA estimates that more than 10,000 infants born each year in Wisconsin are at risk of those types of developmental problems because of prenatal exposure to elevated levels of mercury.

It only takes one gram of mercury a year, less than the amount in a single thermostat, to contaminate a 20-acre lake. Mercury also enters Wisconsin waters from coal plant pollution or from household and industrial products. Residents can help reduce mercury pollution by lowering their energy use and properly recycling used thermostats and spent compact fluorescent light bulbs.