Time Magazine ran a fiction story about asthma inhalers and greenhouse gases based loosely on a paper in BMJ. The original story contained numerous errors, some of which have since been removed.
First, their evolving headline changes:
- Revision 0: “How Asthma Inhalers are Contributing to Climate Change“.
- Revision 1: “How Asthma Inhalers are Choking the Planet“
- Revision 2: “How One Commonly Used Asthma Inhaler is Damaging the Planet“
Revision 0 is accurate.
Revision 1 is what they ran with and promoted online, and shared on social media. This version was insensitive/rude and 100% false. This version is STILL running on their own social media, even though they acknowledge it is false.
After I (and presumably others) contacted Time Magazine, they revised the headline a third time to a technically accurate but misleading and exaggerated headline (Revision 2).
They also corrected, partially, other errors in the report – but left some in place.
For example, they incorrectly said inhalers use methane as the propellant, and then cited an activist group’s estimate of greenhouse impacts (84x) for methane, rather than the science-based IPCC AR5’s more modest value (28x). This exaggeration is classic yellow journalism. But inhalers do not use methane – a point they had wrong.
The reference to methane and 84x has been deleted but they make no mention of these changes in their corrections list.
The failed to put anything in context – a typical human’s breathing over the course of the year emits twice the level of CO2 as the CO2 equivalent of the worst case inhaler used every day. And this is about 1% of the CO2 equivalent produced by a typical American home and life activities or 2% of a typical European home.
They issued a Corrections List but also bungled that.
This error-ridden propaganda message was written by an Editor-At-Large who was formerly Senior Editor for Science, of all things.
The widely promoted headline “How Asthma Inhalers are Choking the Planet” was presumably viewed as a clever word play, making a joke about asthmatics “choking” when they could not breathe. This was a juvenile attempt at humor and remarkably insensitive and rude to asthmatics. Let’s make fun of crippled people too, while we are at it? This version uses the propaganda method of Fear to enhance the click-bait effect of the title, and to scare the target into action.
Second, the claim that inhalers are “Choking the Planet” is 100% false and not physically possible. In homes that use inhalers daily (in the U.S.), the CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas potential is about 1% of the homes annual CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. About 1 in 12 people are diagnosed with asthma, but only some of them have an inhaler, only some of which use a greenhouse gas-based propellant, and they may not use it every day. For example, I have exercise induced asthma and I use an inhaler before I go jogging (varies 2x to 4x/week).
If asthma inhalers containing HFA were 100% eliminated tomorrow, there would be no detectable change in weather or climate over the next hundred years. None at all.
The errors were so numerous and so bad that this was
likely an intentional propaganda messaging campaign by Time Magazine using the primary propaganda methods of Lies and Fear, to scare the target into taking action.
Here is the original title, as captured in my browser. (I had to use my cell phone to take a photo, rather than a Windows snapshot – due to a keyboard dying I have an old Mac keyboard plugged into my Windows computer, but it lacks the key I need to activate my screen snapshot):
Here is the false headline Time ran for several days last week, and promoted on social media:
Here is the revised headline (third revision):
But look closer – they still have the false heading as the caption on the illustration:
They did not revise the text, which still contains the false “choking the planet” assertion and continues to imply that all 235 million patients use the offending inhalers.
They removed the following text which erroneously cited “methane” (inhalers do not use methane) and used an exaggerated claim of 84x multiplier (for methane) from the activist group Environmental Defense Fund (IPCC AR5 uses 28x multiplier for methane).
A typical inhaler uses two puffs per dose. Thus, a 200-puff inhaler delivers 100 doses. If someone uses an inhaler once per day (some, like me, use much less than this, while others use several times per day), the worst case scenario is up to 79 pounds of CO2-equivalent per worst case inhaler multiplied by about 4 inhalers per year. (Some HFA inhalers produce only 22 pounds, which cuts this worst case by a factor of 4). That’s 79 x 4 or 360 pounds per year (or 90 pounds for best case) versus the estimated average of 40,000 pounds of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from a typical U.S. home and life activities per year. That is my own estimate. The BMJ paper (page 4) estimates the worst case inhaler yields 36.5 kg CO2-equivalent per inhaler. If 4 inhalers are used per year, that is 321 pounds of CO2 equivalent, inline with my estimates.
In context, inhaler effects are close to zero. (There may be errors in the BMJ journal paper but I am not going to pursue those.)
To add additional context, the average human emits an estimated 725 pounds of CO2 per year by breathing. Which is twice the CO2-equivalent impact of using the worst case inhaler, every day. That is from calculated values – converted to an annual amount and converted from metric by me – underlying calculations are from Dr. Peggy LeMone, National Center for Atmospheric Research. Joggers contribute more to choking the planet than walkers – let’s blame joggers too!
The original BMJ paper notes that surveys indicate half of the inhalers turned over to prescription recycling programs are half full, implying, as they note, that people are not using the full doses of their inhalers probably because they did not know if they were empty or not. The content of these inhalers might never be released to the atmosphere. In fact, most are incinerated and incineration alters the gases so that they no longer operate as an HFA greenhouse gas. Merely recapturing the unused propellant, as is already done, cuts the estimated CO2-equivalent release by 25%.
Time Magazine is a Propaganda and Yellow Journalism Operation
The errors – such as the Revision 1 title, the incorrect reference to methane and the exaggerated 84x multiplier from an activist organization are deliberate choices. This was a propaganda mission by Time Magazine. The author is Time’s own former Senior Editor for Science who now has the title Editor-At-Large. Good grief.
Their corrections list omits the full title change, and omits their removal of the 84x multiplier they obtained from the Environmental Defense Fund. In fact, some of the errors they presumably corrected are still in the text of the article and the caption of the lead illustration. The incorrect version continues to run on their social media, including their original video graphic which remains uncorrected.
Editor’s note, Nov. 7:
The original headline on this story has been updated to clarify that it is one commonly used type of inhaler—not all inhalers—that emits significant greenhouse gases.
Correction, Nov. 9:
An earlier version of this story misstated the greenhouse gas in the inhalers; it is hydrofluoroalkane, not methane.
Worth mentioning that inhalers used to use CFCs, but those were banned. They then switched to hydrofluoralkane. Switching to another option may take up to a decade to find an acceptable solution and perform clinical trials.
With the propaganda messaging in this bungled report, Time Magazine qualifies as a fake news propaganda web site and at best is a yellow journalism mill. This is garbage reporting. When seen in the context of having no impact on climate, this original BMJ paper should not have been turned into a general news report. Time made up an exaggerated interpretation and did this for yellow journalism click bait.
Time is a junk news site masquerading as journalism and will no longer be viewed as a credible source for factual news.
How to Do Climate Communications
The Nature Conservancy should focus on facts of atmospheric CO2 levels rising, land and sea surface temperature anomalies, ice pack changes, ocean Ph and sea level change (IPCC Synthesis Report, Figure SPM.1) – as reported by reputable scientific bodies, but they did not. Instead they went straight for hyperbole and making untrue claims to promote fear and hysteria.
Stick with the facts of CO2 rising, sea level ice and temperature changes, ice mass changes or risk tuning all of us out. Shrill terminology designed to create emotional outrage and responses is a total turn off.
The facts are sufficient. The impacts of untrue propaganda hysteria, on the other hand, are to turn off the target completely. We have learned nothing from the parable of the boy who repeatedly cried Wolf!
The propaganda messaging methods in use are leading to public opinions that are not based in facts, logic or evidence. This risks the potential for major backlash against taking action to reduce CO2-equivalent effects on climate.
I have lost all trust in the media’s reporting on climate change. I’ll stick with science papers and IPCC reports, and blogs from selected scientists and researchers.
Letter sent to Time Magazine reporter/editor:
The title to this story is not true and the attempt at a clever word play about “asthma” and “choking” is insensitive.
The original title for this story was “How Asthma Inhalers are Contributing to Climate Change” (as it was saved in my browser) – Why the change to the rude headline mocking asthmatics? This is appalling on the part of Time Magazine.
Headline is False
Second, the headline is false. Asthma inhalers are not “choking the planet” and are physically incapable of doing so.
Per the BMJ paper, inhalers are estimated to release 22 to 79 pounds of CO2 equivalent GHGs per inhaler
Put an inhaler’s CO2 footprint in context by comparing to the typical American household estimated to produce up to 40,000 pounds of CO2 per year from all sources. I used the carbon calculator provided by The Nature Conservancy and came up with a first pass estimate for my neighborhood of 34,000 pounds per year. (Because we use 1/3d the average electricity, and soon to be zero as solar PV is installed by the end of this month, the actual usage for our home and life is considerably less than this.)
When an inhaler represents 22 to 79 pounds CO2 equivalent, this must be put in the context of the average US home yielding 40,000 pounds of CO2 per year. For someone using an inhaler every single day, this is well under 1%. Why are we wasting time on such a tiny fraction?
There is simply no physical way that “Asthma inhalers are choking the planet”. None. If we removed all inhalers tomorrow, there would be zero measurable impact on weather or climate. None. Zero.
Lack of Pricing Data
Third, your report provides no U.S. pricing data. At the age of 60 I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma (2 months ago). I went jogging one day and found myself unable to get sufficient air in to my lungs. Very scary – had never happened before (I since learned its genetic and my Mom and two older brothers dealt with asthma for decades). My doctor prescribed an HFA inhaler. I pay 100% of the costs of prescriptions, out of pocket.
When I priced dry powder inhalers on GoodRx, their price quotes were 10x to 15x higher than the HFA inhaler. If these price quotes are legitimate (such as $250 per inhaler), I would obviously not be using an inhaler and I and others would end up putting lives at risk – for no measurable impact on climate.
Climate Shaming Asthmatics
Healthy people climate shaming asthmatics is not an effective strategy for climate communications. Instead, it is an effective way to destroy any support for reducing carbon emissions. I am serious.
In the context of minuscule carbon footprint of inhalers compared to the typical household, this rudely titled story should never have been published.
At the very least, change the headline to stop mocking asthmatics with crude middle school humor.
Edward Mitchell, M.S. (engineering), M.B.A.
 At the end of the BMJ paper they note that half the inhalers turned into recycling centers are half full, due in part to lack of dosage meters and people replacing them prematurely. Burning the content destroys the methane’s green house gas effect. Which implies we can cut those CO2 equivalent pound estimates in half just by recycling. [Correction – by 25%]