Illinois thermostat collection nets 8 tons of mercury

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By Alexandra Harakas
Great Lakes Echo

Mercury contributes to impaired neurological development. (Image: Healthcare Environmental Resource Center)


Got Mercury? Illinois does. Eight tons.

A new study by the nonprofit organization, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows that 1.86 million mercury thermostats are still used in residential and commercial properties throughout the state. Each thermostat contains about .14 ounces of mercury.

The Illinois Mercury Thermostat Collection Act passed in 2010 turned a voluntary collection program into a mandatory one. The law requires thermostat manufacturers, such as General Electric and Honeywell, to have contractors remove those remaining from buildings. New York also has a mandatory collection program for mercury thermostats.

Mercury has been linked to impaired neurological development, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The law required 15,000 thermostats to be collected annually until 2015. Reports from 2012 show that 13,061 were collected.

Collection goals should be set at 60,000 to 70,000 thermostats in upcoming years, said David Lennett, NRDC’s senior attorney and manager of the study and who is based in New York City.

Also collected were 2,452 loose mercury switches, not credited toward the goal because the way the law was drafted, said Kevin Greene, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) pollution prevention manager.

The state came pretty close to the goal, he said. “They could have done more on outreach and education.”

The collection of the thermostats is managed by the nonprofit Thermostat Recycling Corp., Greene said. It provides collection bins and promotional materials and pays the shipping and processing costs.

mercury thermostat

A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that 1.86 million mercury thermostats are still in use in the state of Illinois. (Image: Washington Department of Ecology)

The TRC is responsible for the thermostats after they are handled by technicians, wholesale outlets and company headquarters. Technicians at these headquarters dismantle thermostats. As for the mercury, TRC stores it in EPA approved facilities.

TRC declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mercury Recyclers International is a company in Palm Bay, Florida that recycles mercury waste from dental offices. The president of the company, Bruce MacArthur, explained its recycling process.

“If it goes to a proper recycling facility, it is removed, refined and resold back into the marketplace,” said MacArthur. “However, a brand-new regulation as of 2013 is to contain the mercury in special government approved facilities and bury it in old salt mines with other radioactive waste.”

MacArthur said the process is safe.

“Containers last forever,” he said. “It becomes government property as a depot. There’s no way to get rid of mercury. You have to bury it somewhere where it won’t escape.”

Liquid mercury can be mixed with a powder to turn it solid, MacArthur said. “Then it can be contained in a drum and disposed of in regular hazardous waste landfills.”

“It is a resource issue,” said NRDC’s Lennett about the study. “Right now the IEPA doesn’t have boots on the ground. They have the authority to provide financial incentives, hopefully they will to get a return.”

The IEPA will announce the number of thermostats collected in 2013 on April 1.

“If manufacturers do not meet the goal for 2013, then under the law we will sit down and discuss improvement and set standards, even sooner the way that it’s functioning.” Lennett said. The study predicted that 37 percent of the thermostats still in use will be removed by 2020, when the law ends.

Greene of the IEPA said, “If more steps are needed, we can suggest requiring a financial incentive to service technicians.” Maine and Vermont currently provide financial incentives for their thermostat collection programs.

And Lennett said of the incentive in those states, “It’s not a huge amount of money — $5 when the thermostat is returned. But when you think about the cost of getting mercury under control versus not, it is a pretty cheap way to keep it out of the environment.”


Groups around the country are working to get rid of left over mercury thermostats, providing waste containers, and in some cases, incentive based programs. (Image: Green Energy Efficient Homes)

Alcohol and digital thermostats are available as alternatives to ones containing mercury.

Although thermostats and thermometers are major sources of mercury, people are at highest risk of mercury poisoning when they eat fish.

Illinois currently has a consumption advisory for predatory fish. Mercury that enters the environment via air and waterways builds up in the muscle tissues of fish in the inorganic form of methymercury. It passes through the food chain through bioaccumulation, as each organism feeds on another.

Pregnant women are especially at risk. Consumption of fish containing mercury can lead to neurological problems in unborn infants such as low IQ, and impaired motor skills, vision, hearing and speech.

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