Canadian Consulting Engineer

Dealing with the hidden danger of thermostats and building controls

Older thermostats and building control devices contained mercury, which is a persistent and toxic heavy metal that ...

May 4, 2009   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Older thermostats and building control devices contained mercury, which is a persistent and toxic heavy metal that is harmful to aquatic life and humans. One gram of mercury can contaminate an eight-hectare lake and make its fish inedible for a year, and yet just one older mechanical thermostat can contain 10 times that amount. Mercury has been identified as one of 11 critical pollutants in the Great Lakes, and it has been listed as a toxic substance by Canada’s government since 1999.

Obviously, disposing of mercury-containing thermostats is a major issue for the environment, and now the Ontario government is tightening up its municipal hazardous waste legislation it will require that the building controls manufacturers come up with a stewardship plan for the safe removal and disposal of mercury from old thermostats. The province of British Columbia has recently announced similar legislation, and other provinces are expected to follow suit.

The good news is that the Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI) has been working with the Clean Air Foundation for several years to manage the disposal of mercury from both residential and commercial thermostats under its “Switch the Stat” program. The organizations want the Ontario government to accept the Switch the Stat program as the industry’s own required “Industry Stewardship Program” as required under the new regulations. They’re also proposing that the Switch the Stat program become national in scope.

So far, the Clean Air Foundation/HRAI  program has collected over 17,100 mercury-containing thermostat switches in Ontario, representing 43 kilograms of mercury. The mercury is collected by Purolator at no cost to participating contractors and transported to Aevitas in Ayr, Ontario for processing. At Aevitas the mercury is removed and safely stored.  Aevitas also provides the Clean Air foundation with collection data.

Under Ontario’s legislation the controls manufacturers and distributors would have to bear the cost of administering the industry stewardship plans.

In its April 2009 newsletter, HRAI writes: “On April 7, HRAI Vice President Martin Luymes filed a letter with Waste Diversion Ontario declaring the HRAI and the Clean Air Foundation are confident that building on the existing [Switch the Stat] program, which now has a proven track record, will not only exceed the requirement of Waste Diversion Ontario but will also present a more cost-effective solution for the industry funders (i.e. controls manufacturers), while also ensuring these manufacturers of a higher level of oversight over the workings of the program.”

The newsletter also indicated that over the next months the controls manufacturers would be considering the proposal for making the Switch the State program a national program so that the collection of mercury thermostats would be handled by the contractors and wholesalers across the country.

Mercury is present in the natural environment, but according to the Clean Air Foundation’s website, levels have been elevated since the industrial revolution. Other industrial sources of mercury are the burning of coal to produce electricity, and mining and chemical manufacturing.

PSTG Consulting has been contracted by the Ontario Government and Stewardship Ontario to organize the hazardous waste stewardship programs for various substances that fall under the provinces regulations.


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