What's Illinois going to do with 1.8 million old mercury thermostats?

old round mercury thermostat
CC BY 2.0 midnightcomm

The state of Illinois has a real problem on its hands. A revealing article, posted on the National Resources Defense Council staff blog, explains that there are approximately 1.8 million mercury thermostats still being used in homes and businesses throughout Illinois. (The total estimated number of thermostats is 7.7 million.) The thermostats that contain mercury are older models, mostly round or square – the type that many of us would recognize from childhood.

Each one contains four grams of mercury, which means that, collectively, these 1.8 million thermostats contain over eight tons of mercury.

As author David Lennet explains in the article, mercury poses a threat to the environment and to personal health as soon as an old thermostat is disposed of: “If the glass ampoule containing the mercury is broken or crushed during waste handling or disposal, the mercury will be released into the environment, since mercury is volatile at room temperature.” Eventually mercury ends up in waterways, contaminating fish and their predators. Mercury continues to travel up the food chain, which is why there’s a widespread fish consumption state advisory throughout Illinois.

Children must be protected against mercury. It is a powerful neurotoxin that affects child development. Scientists have estimated that thousands of babies are born each year in the U.S. with mercury levels that are associated with loss of IQ. As a result, mercury thermostat collection is part of the Great Lakes protection strategy.

Illinois has tried to encourage homeowners and renovators to use the ‘Thermostat Recycling Corporation,” which was a state-created, non-profit group, but it was not very successful. Now the state is taking firmer action in order to avoid the scary consequences of releasing those eight tons of mercury into the environment. In 2010, the state enacted the mandatory ‘Illinois Mercury Thermostat Collection Act,’ setting collection goals that Lennett describes as “modest” – 15,000 thermostats annually for 2012-2014. At the end of 2014, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) will set new collection goals for 2015-2020.

Collection goals are a good idea, but researchers don’t seem hopeful. An estimated 37 percent of the mercury thermostats will come off the walls by 2020, but that leaves many still unaccounted for. Since the law expires in 2020, and there’s no guarantee of it being extended, the IEPA has a big job ahead, trying to collect as many thermostats as possible in the next few years.

The problem is that many people don’t care, perhaps because they don’t understand the implications of tossing an old thermostat in a Dumpster. It would be a good idea for contractors and planners to get on board, as well as the municipal offices that provide building permits. Perhaps the state government could hire companies to do replacements, and provide basic new thermostats free of charge. Word of mouth and education can also help. If you see an old thermostat in someone’s home, please mention that safe disposal is necessary.

Tags: Health | Heating | Housing Industry | Recycling