Current thermostat recycling program fails to protect environment and health

MADISON — Only 5 percent of the two million to three million mercury-containing thermostats that come out of service in the United States every year are properly collected and disposed of under the current national voluntary recycling program, according to a report released today by Clean Wisconsin and the National Mercury Policy Project.

“While mercury thermostat manufacturers deserve credit for recognizing a major problem, collecting only 5 percent of out-of-service thermostats is entirely unacceptable,” said Amber Meyer Smith, program director at Clean Wisconsin, the state’s largest environmental advocacy organization. “This is especially true when you consider that thermostats disposed of every year in the U.S. contain a total of seven to 10 tons of mercury.”

Chronic exposure to mercury results in memory loss, speech difficulties, troubles with vision, and cardiovascular problems in adults. Children and the unborn exposed to mercury can face neurological damage that impairs development, leads to low intelligence, and inhibits school performance. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between 300,000 and 630,000 infants are born each year in the United States with mercury levels high enough to be associated with a loss of IQ.

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

“A single thermostat can hold enough mercury to contaminate a pond or small lake,” said Smith. “When a voluntary program fails to work, it becomes the duty of our leaders in the state legislature to protect the health of state residents by mandating manufacturers of mercury thermostats to collect and properly dispose of them.”

The current voluntary recycling program was instituted by the three largest producers of mercury thermostats. In 2006, Maine took that program to the next level when it passed a law requiring mercury thermostat manufacturers that sold thermostats in the state to establish a collection program for HVAC professionals and homeowners. This successful program offers a financial incentive for each mercury thermostat properly disposed of, and Maine now recycles more than twice the number of mercury thermostats per capita than Wisconsin.

“Maine’s law demonstrates that we can reduce the amount of toxic mercury entering our environment from out-of-service thermostats,” said Smith. “With the health of our children at stake, it is imperative that lawmakers act quickly to reduce the amount of toxic mercury polluting our lakes, rivers and streams.”