Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that can cause permanent brain damage, autism, deafness and blindness as well as reduce IQs and slow motor functions. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.
The new collection initiative will expand the availability of current recycling opportunities for mercury thermostats. Long-term household hazardous waste collection sites in both Rockford and Naperville have agreed to collect and recycle mercury thermostats through an industry take-back program. This will provide two drop-off locations in Northern Illinois for homeowners or “do-it-yourselfers” that purchase replacement thermostats.
“Illinois is already a leader in taking steps to reduce mercury, and this new recycling program is another way we can help make homes safer and communities cleaner for our children,” said Governor Blagojevich.
The Product Stewardship Institute, Inc., a national organization that seeks to reduce environmental impacts from consumer product and the Thermostat Recycling Corp., a non-profit entity created by Honeywell, White-Rodgers and General Electric, will administer the five-state pilot project. The pilot will run through the end of the year in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington State, and Florida.
“This partnership with the thermostat manufacturing industry is another important part of a multi-faceted initiative by Gov. Blagojevich and IEPA that leads the nation in reducing the hazards of exposure to potentially-harmful mercury in our environment,” said IEPA Director Doug Scott.
Until now, the take-back program has only been available to thermostat wholesalers. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning contractors can drop off mercury thermostats at participating wholesaler locations when they purchase new thermostats or other supplies. The new initiative will allow homeowners to recycle thermostats that they replace on their own by taking them to a long-term household hazardous waste facility. TRC will provide the containers and pay for shipping costs to a commercial mercury recovery facility.
"Illinois has shown great initiative by stepping forward on this pilot and adding another element in its comprehensive approach to reducing mercury emissions," said Scott Cassel, Executive Director of the Product Stewardship Institute, Inc.
The Illinois EPA estimates that somewhere between 88,000 and 132,000 mercury thermostats are disposed of annually in Illinois. Forty-four thermostat wholesale stores are participating in the industry take-back program. In 2004, these wholesalers collected over 5,000 mercury thermostats for recycling throughout the state.
The typical mercury thermostat contains 3 grams of mercury that can be released into the environment if the thermostat is broken or disposed of improperly. The mercury is used as a component of a mechanical tilt switch, which activates the heating and cooling equipment connected to the thermostat. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that 63 million mercury-containing thermostats are in use within the United States, containing approximately 230 tons of mercury.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin capable of impairing childhood development when pregnant women or young children are exposed to the metal. Without proper management, mercury may be released into the environment at the end of a thermostat’s useful life during waste handling or disposal. Waste compaction in a garbage truck, at a transfer station, or at a landfill could easily lead to breakage of the glass tube in the switch, allowing the mercury to be released into the air.
Since coming into office, Gov. Blagojevich has demonstrated his continued commitment to reducing mercury in the environment:
In April, Gov. Blagojevich signed into law mercury switch legislation, which creates a statewide program for collecting and removing mercury-containing switches from retired vehicles before they are processed as scrap metal and emitted into the environment. The new law requires automakers to create mercury switch collection programs, offering storage containers to auto recyclers and dismantlers, and arranging for transportation of the removed switches.
In January 2006, Gov. Blagojevich announced his proposal to aggressively cut mercury emissions from Illinois power plants by 90 percent by mid 2009. These state standards will go far beyond the federal Clean Air Mercury Rule restrictions adopted last spring and would make Illinois a national leader in efforts to reduce toxic emissions into the environment. The proposed rules were filed March 14th with the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
Focusing on retail products, three years ago the Governor signed legislation that ended the sale of mercury thermometers and novelty items. This is another step to remove mercury from the waste stream and replace those items with safer available alternatives. The legislation supported previous legislation that further reduced mercury-containing products that pose a potential health hazard by prohibiting schools from purchasing mercury containing scientific equipment for use in classrooms.
Illinois EPA also continues to implement the Governor’s Mercury Initiative on a variety of fronts. They include collections of mercury items in household hazardous waste collections, “green chemistry workshops” and exchanges of mercury thermometers.
Illinois EPA has mercury monitoring programs underway. An air sampling station in Northbrook in 2000 is one of only two continuous mercury-monitoring stations in the U.S. Mercury samples are also being collected using advanced scientific techniques at several inland lakes and streams across the state.
These initiatives are designed to reduce the health threats to Illinois residents making schools, homes, and other buildings safer. For additional information on the recycling program, please visit: www.epa.state.il.us.