Flat-Screen TVs Hyped as Climate Threat

Media's quest for the latest household hazard distorts research

This summer, several headlines touted a new threat to the world’s battle against climate change. But this menace doesn’t burn gas, churn oil, or even kill trees.

Flat-screen televisions have been criticized lately because manufacturers use a little-known synthetic gas called nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) in the production of their liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. The reason for such headlines as “Flat Screen TV Gas ‘a climate time bomb’” is that U.C. Irvine professor Michael Prather described NF3 as the “greenhouse gas missing from Kyoto” in a recent paper, because it possesses a global warming effect 16,800 times that of carbon dioxide when compared as single molecules.

But scary headlines and misreporting have misled the public about the true threat posed by NF3 and that 56-incher. Yes, NF3 is a potent greenhouse gas—but even if 100 percent of a year’s production reached the atmosphere it would only have a microscopic effect on climate change.

“It’s not a big deal by itself,” Prather said in an interview. “We’re looking at less than half a percent [the impact] of CO2. Is it the most important thing? No. But it should be in the market basket. And it should be monitored.”

The overblown response to Prather’s report also raises the question about how climate science will be written and interpreted now that global warming has gained more of the news hole and been deemed an urgent issue by so many. Prather said he wrote the report in a manner that he hoped would garner attention, but felt disappointed that half of the reporting he saw inflated his paper’s conclusions.

“If it weren’t flat screen TVs, it wouldn’t have gotten the coverage,” Prather said.

But could stories such as “LCD making worse for the environment than coal?” inundate the public with so many hyped warnings to the point that the masses would eventually ignore the climate change message altogether?

“It is a potential problem, as the public may begin to neglect the message if they get whipsawed by exaggerated reports,” Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote in an email. “So we need to state information clearly, including appropriate caveats.”

The caveats are many. The Prather paper clearly reported that no one knows how much NF3 resides in the atmosphere, because the gas hasn’t been measured. Prather hoped to devise a means to measure the gas by this fall. Additionally, the impact of NF3 on global warming would be minimal. If all the estimated 4,000 tons of NF3 produced in a year escaped into the atmosphere, it would equal 0.44 percent of the global warming impact from the world’s CO2 emissions in a year. All of that NF3 would have slightly more climate impact than the emissions from two of the world’s largest coal power plants combined. There are more than 600 coal plants in the United States alone.

“It was a very useful study, a useful warning—too bad it got over-hyped,” Hansen wrote. “It is not a message for consumers, i.e., there is no reason for them not to buy flat-screens, but it is a message for technologists to be aware of its potential effects.”
In LCD production, NF3 is electrified to separate the nitrogen and fluorine, which then acts as a cleaning agent. Most of the NF3 is destroyed in the process, and none remains in the TV. A 2006 study cited by Prather in his paper reported that only 2 percent of NF3 escapes in most uses. So at this point there’s no need to add an HDTV to that list of environmentally harmful consumer items like SUVs and incandescent light bulbs.

“A lot of environmentalists are concerned about being the bearer of bad news and always being seen as the people who want you to do something that would lower their quality of life,” said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute. “You don’t always want to be the one saying ‘I don’t want you to buy that.’”

The ironic part of this for NF3 producers such as Air Products is that use of NF3 increased in the semiconductor industry, which uses it to make microchips, when it replaced perfluorocarbons, a potent class of greenhouse gases that can’t be contained or destroyed as easily as NF3. Air Products even won a climate protection award in 2002 from the Environmental Protection Agency for helping reduce emissions in the industry.

“The thing that drives me mad about this is that we have researchers and [NF3] is their claim to fame,” Air Products vice president Corning Painter said. “We brag about it. We got an EPA award for this. And now for it to be reported in this way is depressing for the team.”

The implementation of NF3 has helped the U.S. semiconductor industry reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade, despite an increase in demand for electronics products, according to the EPA. Through a partnership with the industry, the EPA receives voluntary NF3 emission measurements.

Prather agrees that NF3 marked an improvement, but he still wants the gas measured and put on the list of greenhouse gases for the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol that begins in 2012.

“Is it an improvement? Yes.” Prather said. “But is it God’s gift to greenhouse gases? No.”

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Matthew Townsend is in his final semester at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. He previously covered high school, college and professional sports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Since returning to journalism after a few years in corporate writing, he has written for the Huffington Post and several New York publications, including the New York Observer.