Mercury thermostats should be recycled

HAS MERCURY — Old thermostats have an ampule — a small glass vial — which has mercury in it to connect a circuit when heat is needed. When you replace one of these thermostats with a programmable set-back thermostats to get more efficiency from your heating system, you can recycle the old one at the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility at 80 Leland Ave. Extension, Utica. (Sentinel photo by Norm Landis)

Old thermostats with mercury switches should be safely disposed of through recycling — not be thrown in the trash.

The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) issued a report showing that garbage incinerators are a major source of mercury emissions in New York — because people put old thermostats in with garbage.

"Discarded thermostats are a significant source of mercury in the waste stream," NYPIRG officials said.

A search for "thermostat" on — the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority website — finds that "Mercury is a naturally occurring toxic trace element found in air, water, soil and rocks. Mercury, a silvery-colored liquid, is used in thousands of household and commercial products and industrial processes. Mercury can be found in appliances, vehicles, thermostats, and thermometers. All items containing mercury should be properly disposed of at our Household Hazardous Waste Facility. There is no charge for residents to drop off household hazardous wastes.

The Household Hazardous Waste site at 80 Leland Ave. Extension, Utica, is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. (You can click on "get directions" at

A coalition of environmental groups, public health advocates, and municipal recyclers have asked the New York State Legislature to pass legislation this session that would reduce the amount of mercury entering solid waste facilities.

The groups are: Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Clean & Healthy New York, Environmental Advocates of New York, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York Product Stewardship Council, New York Public Interest Research Group and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

The coalition said, "Mercury is a highly potent neurotoxin that is extremely harmful to pregnant women, developing fetuses, and infants and children."

The groups are also supporting legislation to limit the mercury content in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and other fluorescent lighting, modeled after standards adopted by the European Union. There are no federal regulations limiting the amount of mercury that can be contained in light bulbs, and they are not included in New York’s disposal ban.

The coalition pointed out that due to the environmental and health hazards of mercury exposure, New York has taken a number of steps over the years to prevent mercury releases, including a 2005 law that phased out the sale of many mercury-added consumer products and banned their disposal in solid waste facilities.

Despite these measures, discarded products containing mercury are still ending up in the waste stream, posing a threat to our air and water, the coalition said.

According to data from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), in 2009, municipal waste combustors in New York released more mercury into the air than coal-fired power plants.

According to emissions data from the DEC, the 10 garbage incinerators in New York released a combined 128 pounds of mercury into the air in 2009, more mercury than the state’s coal-fired power plants. New York has issued health warnings against consuming fish from the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and nearly 100 other water bodies due to mercury contamination. Air emissions are a significant cause of mercury contamination in waterways. Airborne deposition of as little as one gram of mercury a year can contaminate the fish in a 20-acre lake, NYPIRG said.

"Mercury is a very dangerous metal that causes reduced IQ and all the symptoms of ADHD in children, as well as kidney disease in adults," said Dr. David O. Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. "We must reduce the releases of mercury into the environment."

NYPIRG officials said, "Discarded mercury-containing thermostats are a significant source of mercury in the waste stream because they contain, on average, four grams (about a thimbleful) of liquid mercury. This is about eight times the average amount of mercury found in a mercury fever thermometer (.5 g), and 800 times the average amount of mercury in a compact fluorescent lamp (5 mg). When improperly disposed of in landfills or incinerators, the glass ampoules can break, releasing mercury into the environment."

Over 300,000 mercury-containing thermostats come off the wall each year with most ending up in landfills or incinerators with the potential for mercury releases, the coalition reported.

Because there are no effective collection programs in place for these older thermostats, it is estimated that nearly 99 percent of these — containing over a ton of mercury — end up in the garbage.

"Time is running out to address this problem," said Joseph Stelling, NYPIRG’s environmental campaign organizer. "As more New Yorkers switch to energy-efficient measures like programmable thermostats, it’s crucial to establish an effective program to capture and safely dispose of the discarded mercury thermostats coming off the walls."

Many states have passed laws requiring manufacturers to collect discarded mercury thermostats. The most effective ones establish a $5 takeback program. Maine and Vermont, for instance, have collection rates 10-20 times higher than New York, which relies on voluntary collection programs.

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