County Executive Falk Calls on State Commerce Department to Ban Mercury Thermostats in New Home Construction
November 16, 2004
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk today called upon the Wisconsin Department of Commerce to include a ban on the use of mercury thermostats in new home construction as part of its Uniform Dwelling Code requirements for builders.
Disposal of mercury-containing thermostats adds to the mercury in Wisconsin waters, which then accumulates in fish that people eat. Wisconsin has posted fish consumption advisories for all waterbodies in the state due to high levels of mercury.
“Mercury is a toxic metal that concentrates in the human body and attacks the central nervous system, brains, kidneys and lungs,” said Falk. “It is particularly harmful to fetuses in pregnant women, since mercury crosses the placenta and harms brain development.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 15 to 20 percent of the women in the United States have elevated levels of mercury in their blood to the extent that their fetuses have adversely affected brain development. Falk said that at that rate, up to 900 births a year in Dane County are of children whose intellectual capacity may be impaired due to mercury, an impairment that lasts the person’s entire life.
A recent study by Barr Engineering for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and work by Dane County shows that mercury thermostats are the single largest household product with mercury.
While an industry sponsored program exists to recycle thermostats, and Dane County recently implemented an ordinance requiring retailers of mercury thermostats to take back these products from their customers for recycling, Wisconsin recycles just under 5,100 mercury thermostats through the industry program, less than 3 percent of the estimated 180,000 discarded.
“There are great alternative products for mercury thermostats that are actually superior in terms of regulating building temperatures in saving energy in heating and air conditioning,” said Falk. “Several states, including California, have banned the sale of mercury thermostats. We urge the Wisconsin Legislature to join these states in protecting children’s health.”
Until a ban happens, Falk is asking the Department of Commerce to amend the Uniform Dwelling Code to include a ban on the use of mercury thermostats in new home construction.
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(See following letter to Administrator of Division of Safety and Buildings of Dept. of Commerce)
November 15, 2004
Kimberly Walker, Administrator
Division of Safety and Buildings
Wisconsin Department of Commerce
Post Office Box 7970
Madison, Wisconsin 53707-7970
Dear Ms. Walker:
I am writing to recommend that the Department of Commerce include a ban on the use of mercury thermostats in the Uniform Dwelling Code, as has been discussed by the UDC Council.
As I am sure that you are aware, mercury is a very toxic metal with the major concern for human health being methyl mercury in the foods that we eat, especially fish. Methyl mercury is formed by the biological conversion of metallic mercury and bioaccumulates in the food chain. The state has posted fish consumption advisories for all water bodies in the state due to high levels of mercury. According to estimates of EPA and the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 15-20% of pregnant women in this country have elevated levels of mercury in their blood to the extent that their fetuses have adversely affected brain development. A prorating of this number suggests that up to 900 births a year in Dane County are of children who may be impaired intellectually due to mercury, an impairment that affects the person for the rest of their life.
Both a study done by Barr Engineering for the DNR, and work by Dane County shows that mercury thermostats are the single largest household product with mercury. While there exists an industry sponsored programs to recycle thermostats – and Dane County has recently implemented an ordinance requiring retailers of mercury thermostats to take back these products from their customers for recycling – the data show that in 2003, Wisconsin recycled just under 5,100 mercury thermostats through the industry program, less than 3% of the estimated 180,000 discarded. And, according to data of a 2003 market report by Frost & Sullivan, the estimated sales of mercury thermostats in North America is put at 4.5 million annually, with over a third of these for new construction. Given the long life of thermostats – over 40 years in many cases – the continued use of thermostats with mercury means that these products will continue to contribute to environmental discharges for decades into the future.
Because of the dangers of mercury from products and the limited success of existing recycling programs, the Dane County Board of Supervisors has included in its agenda for state legislation a recommendation that the State of Wisconsin ban the sale of mercury-containing products if suitable alternatives exist. We believe that for thermostats, not only do suitable products exist, but that the alternatives are superior in terms of regulating building temperatures and in saving energy in heating and air conditioning. We note that several states – including most recently, California – have banned the sale of mercury thermostats.
We understand that some argue that this issue is better handled as a consumer product safety issue through another agency, such as DATCP. We have discussed this issue with staff at DATCP, and they note that DATCP's product ban authority under ss. 100.37 and 100.42, Stats. is limited to products or substances which "pose an unreasonable risk of personal injury or illness resulting from foreseeable use of the product,” which does not apply to mercury thermostats. Both DATCP and DNR staff share our concern with the discharge of mercury to the environment from discarded thermostats.
As part of its building standards, in 2000, Dane County adopted a progressive Green Building policy, which includes the concepts of pollution prevention, life cycle analysis, the precautionary principle, and the minimization or elimination of the use of toxic materials in buildings. All of these concepts support the banning of the use of mercury thermostats. In addition, Green Building calls for minimizing the use of energy, which is better served by digital, programming thermostats. We note that in order for homebuilders to have their homes certified as Green Built Homes, they must not install mercury-containing thermostats.
For both near term energy savings and long-term reductions in mercury discharges to the environment, Dane County encourages the Department of Commerce to include a ban on the use of mercury thermostats in new home construction.
Dane County Executive
cc: Governor Jim Doyle
Dane County Legislators
Secretary Cory Nettles, Department of Commerce
Sharyn Wisniewski, executive office (608) 267-8823
John Reindl, recycling coordinator, 267-8815