The chemical gas, perfluorotributylamine, which does not occur naturally -- it is a man-made chemical that has been used by the electrical industry since the mid-20th century -- breaks all records for potential impacts on the climate, chemists at the University of Toronto reported Tuesday.
"We claim that PFTBA has the highest radiative efficiency of any molecule detected in the atmosphere to date," study so-author Angela Hong told Britain's the Guardian.
Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers say they determined PFTBA was 7,100 times more powerful at warming the Earth over a 100-year time span than CO2.
At present, concentrations of PFTBA in the atmosphere are low compared with carbon dioxide, so it does not in any way displace the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal as the main drivers of climate change, the researchers said.
But its impact as a greenhouse gas still is a concern, they said.
"This is a warning to us that this gas could have a very very large impact on climate change -- if there were a lot of it," Drew Shindell, a climatologist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. "Since there is not a lot of it now, we don't have to worry about it at present, but we have to make sure it doesn't grow and become a very large contributor to global warming."
The study should be taken as a warning against increasing use of an entire class of chemicals for industrial applications whose effects on the atmosphere remain unknown, the researchers said.
"PFTBA is just one example of an industrial chemical that is produced but there are no policies that control its production, use or emission," Hong said. "It is not being regulated by any type of climate policy."
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