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WBMS group aims for more mercury recycling
by Rob Poggenklass · News · January 17, 2007


Methyl mercury, easily absorbed through water by fish, can cause reproductive failure, DNA alteration, kidney failure or even death


As one of only two elements that is a liquid at room temperature, most people know mercury as that cool silver substance that slides up and down inside thermometers.

But mercury (chemical symbol: Hg) has a darker side, if you will. When exposed to the microorganisms that dwell in bodies of water, mercury becomes a potentially lethal substance — posing a threat to fish and the people who eat them.

That’s a snapshot of the science behind a project by the Hg Eliminators, a group of West Branch eighth-graders. Jacob Myrvik, Isaac De Jong and David Fischer want to raise awareness about the safe disposal of mercury and in particular, they want to see more Iowa businesses recycle old thermostats, which often contain the toxic mercury compound that can contaminate fish populations.

The West Branch Middle School boys are working on the project for eCybermission, a U.S. Army-sponsored science program that encourages students to go beyond typical classroom work and delve into a community issue.

In their research, the Hg Eliminators found that the mercury found in thermostats is rarely the pure mercury you see on the Periodic Table of Elements. When mercury finds its way into the environment — say, by sinking through a landfill into groundwater — the microorganisms readily convert it into the toxic compound, methyl mercury.

While pure mercury is practically harmless when people ingest it, methyl mercury wreaks havoc on the digestive system. Methyl mercury, which is easily absorbed through water by fish, can cause reproductive failure, DNA alteration, kidney failure or even death.

The Hg Eliminators found that just 1.2 grams of methyl mercury — the amount found in one thermostat — can contaminate fish in three 25-acre lakes, creating hundreds of opportunities for mercury poisoning.

As a way of combating this potential environmental threat, the Hg Eliminators want to make businesses aware of a thermostat recycling program, run by a corporation in Minnesota. For $15, contractors can purchase a green recycling bin for collecting used thermostats. When the bin is full, companies send it to the Thermostat Recycling Corporation. The mercury is removed from the thermostats and recycled.

The Thermostat Recycling Corporation (TRC) was actually formed by Honeywell, White Rodgers and General Electric — the three largest thermostat makers in the United States. The Hg Eliminators said the corporation was formed to reduce mercury waste before the federal government stepped in to mandate it. The TRC has recycled thousands of thermostats, saving hundreds of pounds of mercury from entering the environment.

But, to the frustration of the West Branch Middle Schoolers, relatively few Iowa companies actually know about or use the green bins provided by TRC. For example, they found that just two places in Cedar Rapids have green TRC bins.

The Hg Eliminators talked to businesses like Menards and Lowe’s about placing bins in their stores, with some success. The boys also checked with City Carton Recycling in Iowa City, but the company didn’t want a green bin. Overall, however, the Hg Eliminators got a positive response to their efforts to reduce mercury waste.

“All the contractors we talked to said they’d like to see something done about it,” said Isaac De Jong.

The Hg Eliminators have found that mercury-based thermostats, in addition to the risk they pose to the environment, are also less accurate at telling the temperature than newer, mercury-free ones. Electronic thermostats are more efficient than mercury ones because they are programmable, allowing users to set different temperatures for different times of day. Stores like Lowe’s, in fact, no longer sell thermostats that use mercury.

The Hg Eliminators have been invited to speak about their project at the Iowa Capitol later this winter. They’ll also be entering the eCybermission competition, which has produced several West Branch winners in past years.

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