WAMC News
6:30 pm
Tue December 24, 2013

Mercury Thermostat Law Signed

Credit midnightcomm/flickr

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed the Mercury Thermostat Collection Act, requiring that thermostat manufacturers create a program for the collection, transportation, recycling, and disposal of out-of-service thermostats containing mercury.  Environmental advocates across the state are praising the new law, calling it a huge step in getting mercury out of the land, air and water.

Thermostats containing mercury are no longer sold in New York State, but every year more than a ton of mercury from improperly discarded old thermostats ends up in the state’s waste stream.   The new law sets a goal of collecting 15,500 thermostats in the first year, with the state DEC setting goals for 2016 through 2023.

The New York Public Interest Research Group has been working for years to get mercury out of products and the environment. Senior Environmental Associate Laura Haight calls the new law the next step in reducing mercury.  “Obviously we also have mercury pollution from coal fired power plants, some of it coming in from the Midwest. New York has really been a leader in pretty much doing everything we can do to reduce mercury pollution and this law was the next step ‘cause we’ve already banned the sale of these products that contain mercury. But each year hundreds of thousands of mercury containing thermostats come off the walls in NY, and without adequate collection programs they end up the waste stream, and that’s over a ton of mercury each year.  This is preventable pollution.  What this law does is set up a collection program that the manufacturers must run to enure that more of these, in fact we want most of them, to be collected rather than ending up in the garbage.”

Many thermostats that were sold before 2004 contain mercury. The average lifespan of those units is about 20 years, so many are still in use. Height notes that getting the law passed was difficult and has taken several years due in part to industry opposition.  “The industry was very cooperative when it came to getting mercury out of the thermostats.  New York banned the sale in 2005. A number of other states banned the sale around the same time. And in 2006, Honeywell announced they would stop using mercury in thermostats. But because this is gonna cost them money there is much more resistance to taking on the responsibility of collecting the discards. We’d like to point out that everybody who’s taking off a thermostat is buying a new one, so it’s not like they’re not getting business  when this happens.”

The legislation calls mercury a persistent and toxic pollutant that poses a significant public health threat. New York League of Conservation Voters Legislative Director Ricardo Gotla says that made passage crucial. “Mercury can cause permanent damage to the brain, to the kidneys. And of course mercury exposure is especially hazardous to pregnant women, infants and young children. I think a lot of people think of mercury as coming from power plants or cement factories. But not many people are aware of the fact that this dangerous toxin is actually sitting, in many cases, in our homes on our walls specifically in mercury containing thermostats. And what happens is when those thermostats are discarded, though there’s a voluntary program to make sure that they’re collected and disposed of properly, the large majority end up in either a landfill or incinerated and have the potential  to enter our environment.”

The legislation joins California, Rhode Island and Illinois laws requiring collection goals for the industry. Maine and Vermont have the highest per capita collection rates and require manufacturers to pay a “bounty” for each returned mercury thermostat.

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