Less-toxic TVs: Electronics industry rapidly going mercury-free

A television set that is 37 percent thinner, uses 46 percent less energy -- and is made without the highly toxic heavy metal mercury? That sounds like too much eco-goodness rolled into one PR-friendly package. But this is precisely what consumer electronics giant Samsung is boasting in its new generation of super-thin, super bright LCD television sets. The sets are in a just-released lineup of LCDs from Samsung and are the first mercury-free sets to be included as part of a primary lineup, rather than as a limited edition boutique product.

Samsung's elimination of mercury from LCDs is part of a sea change in the industry as manufacturers switch from mercury-laden cold-cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL) lighting systems to more efficient and less toxic light-emitting diode (LED) systems that illuminate the glass screens and make images on the TVs visible and bright.The elimination of mercury from consumer electronics has long been a priority of environmentalists. The toxic heavy metal can leach from landfills where old TVs and other electronics are discarded and into the water supplies. Mercury can cause brain damage and is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and children. The mercury threat in this country was underscored by recent findings of significant levels of mercury in fish caught in 219 streams across the country.

The sets cost more than normal LCD TVs powered with more toxic components. But "environmental ratings are becoming swing factors in people purchasing CE. That's why there is a willingness to pay a premium in order to get those factors," says David Steel, Senior VP, North America Strategic Marketing, Samsung Electronics.

As the tech industry rushes to go green, Samsung and many other consumer electronics manufacturers are rolling out new product lines that leave out some of the more toxic elements, while both improving performance and efficiency. Apple (AAPL) has introduced mercury-free LCDs in its own products, including the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. Japanese LCD component and set makers Matsushita and Sony have also rolled out LCD TVs that don't contain mercury.

The rapid adoption of this technology by manufacturers has helped drop pricing on LED-based illumination for consumer electronics products dramatically. Tech consultancy DisplaySearch estimates that 90 percent of laptop LCDs will be mercury free by 2012. The greatest beneficiary of these new technologies could well be China, the destination of choice for illicit e-cyclers. Unregulated recycling operations contribute significantly to mercury and other heavy metal contamination in parts of China.

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