Mercury Rising: Discarded Thermostats a Hot Topic

Thermostats polluting landfills with mercury

The EPA estimates that two to three million thermostats come out of service every year in the U.S., yet less than 10 percent of them are recycled properly.

This is according to a voluntary thermostat collection program called the Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC) started by the Big 3 thermostat manufacturers – Honeywell, GE and White-Rodgers. This is a public health issue that may be around for the next two to three decades.

Today’s thermostats contain little or no mercury due to 2010 legislation banning the use of it. However, the average thermostat can last up to 30 years, so there are still millions of mercury-filled thermostats still in use today.

An average thermostat contains about 4 grams of mercury.

How Mercury Goes from Thermostat to Your Body

A thermostat isn’t harmful hanging on the wall, but it is when tossed in the trash. What typically happens is the damaged thermostat sitting in a landfill releases mercury into the ground, which eventually finds its way to area lakes and rivers.

Fish ingest the mercury, and you then eat your fish sticks.

Seafood with the lowest amounts of mercury includes tuna, shrimp, salmon and catfish. The worst offenders, according to the EPA, include swordfish, mackerel and shark.

Who it affects the Most

Women who are pregnant are urged not to eat fish and shellfish, and for good reason. The traces of mercury in these foods can have a major impact on the development of the fetus.

In fact, as many as 460,000 infants are born each year with elevated mercury levels in their bloodstream. Why is this a problem? It slows brain development in infants, negatively affecting the infant’s ability to learn, walk and talk, and it damages memory function.

Why aren’t we Properly Disposing of Thermostats?

That’s a good question, and to be honest, there’s no definitive answer.

The TRC program has collected 5.8 tons of mercury since it was launched in 2002, but there are still tons and tons of mercury entering landfills each year.

You may not think tossing that little old thermostat in the trashcan could wreak so much havoc, but you’re sadly wrong my friend! It affects everyone.

There are only a handful of states that have thermostat recycling programs; however, a 2013 report released by the Mercury Policy Project found that having a state recycling program does not necessarily lead to increased thermostat recycling rates. That may be why state-funded thermostat recycling programs aren’t as widespread as they should be.

Some states, such as Vermont, have offered incentives to homeowners and professionals who properly recycle thermostats. In the case of Vermont residents, you can receive a $5 incentive for each thermostat you turn in.

How to Recycle Your Old Thermostat?

If you’re having an HVAC contractor install your new thermostat, he or she can properly dispose of the old one.

If you’re swapping out the old thermostat yourself, you have several options for recycling the old thermostat:

  1. Check your state’s websites for recycling instructions/information
  2. Go to the TRC website to find a local thermostat recycler
  3. Visit Earth911.com to find a thermostat recycling center near you