NRDC Study Shows More Than 1.8 Million Thermostats Containing 8 Tons of Mercury Need Safe Recycling In Illinois

State should raise collection goals for mercury-laden thermostats to avoid contaminating the environment

CHICAGO (January 13, 2014) –There are more than 1.8 million thermostats containing eight tons of mercury in Illinois homes and buildings, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Clean Water Fund, which are calling for  stronger state rules this year to speed up safe recycling of these  thermostats.

“Illinois has an important opportunity to safeguard the public from a little-known hazard. Few realize that most round or square thermostats— installed before the digital age—contain mercury,” said David Lennett, senior attorney in NRDC’s health program. “Stronger standards are needed in Illinois to ensure that when contractors or homeowners remove these thermostats, the mercury is properly recycled, rather than tossed in the trash where it can pollute our air, land and water.”

Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, can cause damage to the human brain, kidneys and nervous system, and is of particular concern for pregnant women and children due to its effects on childhood development. For most people, the main source of exposure to mercury is through fish consumption where it is concentrated through the food chain.  Illinois has a statewide fish advisory in effect for all predatory fish, intended to protect pregnant woman and children under15 years of age.

NRDC and the Clean Water Fund released the study today that shows 1.86 million thermostats in use in Illinois contain mercury; this is about one-fourth of the total 7.7 million thermostats on walls in the state. Each mercury thermostat carries, on average, four grams of mercury in one or more switches within the thermostat. That means Illinois thermostats collectively contain more than eight tons of mercury.

NRDC and the Clean Water Fund commissioned the study to help inform state officials as they continue implementing an Illinois law passed in 2010. The law changed a voluntary recycling program run by thermostat manufacturers to a mandatory one, and set modest collection goals of 15,000 mercury thermostats annually from 2012 to 2014. It then requires the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to set new collection goals for 2015 to 2020.

The study estimates that more than 100,000 mercury thermostats will be removed from homes and buildings in Illinois annually through 2019, while the industry program collected only slightly more than 13,000 thermostats in 2012; the last year data are available. Moreover, only 37 percent of the remaining mercury thermostats in Illinois are likely to be removed from home and building walls before the law expires at the end of 2020, the study shows.

“Illinois’ environmental officials should use this study and raise the bar much higher on the industry recycling program in its rulemaking this year, and then insist on additional changes needed to make this program a success. That would ensure that many more mercury thermostats are safely recycled and don’t increase mercury pollution Illinois citizens are exposed to,” Lennett said.

David Lennett has a new blog with more on the issue here:

The NRDC-Clean Water Fund study, performed by Skumatz Economic Research Associates, Inc. is here: