"Improper disposal of mercury-containing thermostats is an industry problem. Yet, rather than taking on the responsibility and being leaders, thermostat manufacturers have put too much of the burden on government—which is neither financially sustainable nor effective," said Scott Cassel, chief executive officer of the Product Stewardship Institute. "Industry may say that they've already stepped up to the plate on the issue, but they haven't yet swung the bat. What they lack are strong performance goals for themselves, and strong financial incentives for contractors and homeowners."

Thermostat manufacturers routinely spin the data to highlight increases in thermostat collection while obscuring the fact that very few thermostats were still collected. For example:

  • Georgia is ranked first, according to the TRC's calculations, with a 3,522 percent improvement. However, the state still collected only an estimated 1,655 thermostats in 2011, leaving it near the bottom in terms of per-capita collection rates.
  • TRC describes the Texas program as a huge success story because it collected over 400% more in 2011 than 2009. However, the Texas program still collected less than 5,000 thermostats in 2011 compared to the Maine program, which collected 6,600 in the same year with a population 20 times smaller.
  • In 2010, MMPC released the first edition of Turning up the Heat, which evaluated 2008 collection data and found dismal collection rates. Turning Up the Heat II shows that little improvement has been made in the three years since, resulting in tons of mercury pollution in the nation's water bodies.

In many states, legislation has been introduced in recent years that would require that thermostat manufacturers provide a financial incentive for the return of a thermostat. However, the outcomes have varied. In some states, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Texas, manufacturers have countered by aggressively promoting bills that would do little more than require a continuation of the weak TRC program.

"The 'Trojan horse' strategy of promoting weak legislation that is known to be ineffective is irresponsible business practice on the part of thermostat manufacturers," said Elizabeth Saunders, Massachusetts director for Clean Water Action. "Mercury pollution is a serious public health threat and it's time that legislators, regulators and manufacturers turn up the heat on thermostat collection and get the job done."

Background

Over the last sixteen years, mercury use in U.S. thermostat manufacturing has reduced from between approximately 15 and 21 tons annually to less than 1 ton per year. This dramatic drop can be attributed, in large part, to the passage of legislation in 15 states banning the sale of new mercury thermostats. In the face of shrinking market availability for their mercury products, Honeywell announced in 2006 that it would end production of mercury thermostat switches, and the other large manufacturers have followed suit.

However, taking mercury thermostats off the market is only part of the solution. Tens of millions of mercury thermostats containing several hundred tons of mercury are still in use in U.S. homes and businesses. The mercury in a thermostat will pollute the air, land, or water if not managed properly at the end of its useful life. Given that thermostats can last for decades, the vast reservoir of mercury currently on walls in U.S. homes will be making its way into landfills and incinerators for years to come—unless effective collection programs are put in place.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 200,000 and 460,000 infants are born in the U.S. each year with mercury levels that are associated with the loss of IQ. This is due primarily to maternal consumption of mercury contaminated fish. Twenty-seven states have statewide advisories for all of their fresh water lakes and rivers, and 13 states have statewide advisories for all of their coastal waters, due to mercury pollution.

The report is available here.