Life on this planet Earth is the product of a delicate balancing act provided by nature. Mankind’s very existence is totally dependent on this fragile ecosystem’s ability to maintain itself. A valuable player in the balance of the environment, the ozone layer, is facing a very serious threat by man. Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), are chemical agents commonly found in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, and in the manufacturing of Styrofoam and industrial solvents. With the rate of more than a half-million tons of CFCs being spewed into the atmosphere yearly, the rate of ozone depletion is rising at an alarming rate. If a global effort is not made to end the unnecessary use of CFCs, the inhabitants of this planet face an extremely difficult and frightening future.
CFCs were invented in Dayton, Ohio, in 1928. They were the product of an intensive search by engineers with the G. M. Research Corporation to find a safe, non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerant. Frigidaire patented the formula for CFCs in 1928 and the “new wonder gas” was named Freon. Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray, co-authors of Between Earth and Sky, inform us in their story of CFCs that “Freon soon topped the list of wonders, a ‘miracle’ refrigerant . . . [with the] combination of safety, cleanliness, and efficiency . . . ” (66). Not only was the apparently “safe” gas being used in refrigeration, but with the innovation of air-conditioning by Willis Carrier prior to World War I, Freon would one day be used to cool our homes, automobiles, and businesses.
Other applications for CFCs soon followed. Out of the need to eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes during the first World War, Freon 12 was found to be an excellent propellant to distribute insecticide–thus the birth of the aerosol spray can. “From eight aerosol-related companies in the late forties, the industry grew to more than one hundred just a few years later” (Cagin and Dray 87). CFCs were soon making the lives of millions of Americans much more comfortable. They were also making the Kinetic Chemical Company, a joint corporation of General Motors and Dupont who manufactured and marketed Freon, extremely wealthy.
But in August of 1985, the entire world was informed by a group of scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that the sky was literally falling. A NASA satellite photo revealed that a portion of the ozone layer the size of the continental United States had disappeared from the atmosphere above Antarctica. This startling information confirmed the theory of scientists that the use of CFCs were rapidly destroying the ozone layer.
Ozone is a trace gas naturally formed in the stratosphere. It forms a layer which shields the earth and its inhabitants from the deadly ultraviolet waves emitted by the sun. According to Gordon Keyes with the National Institute of Atmosphere and Water, depletion of this thin layer of ozone not only increases health risks such as skin cancer and suppression of the immune system, it may also cause a decrease in aquatic species and endanger the basic food chain of the ocean (3). The chlorine which results from the breakdown of CFCs in the atmosphere combines with other “greenhouse gases” and enhances the global warming threat. Vice President Al Gore warns of still another consideration in ozone depletion in his national best seller Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit:
Ironically, as the amount of ozone in the stratosphere declines, the extra ultra-violet radiation streaming through also interacts with the local air pollution above cities and increase the amount of smog–including the amount of low-level ozone. While ozone in the stratosphere protects us by absorbing ultra-violet radiation before it can reach the surface, ozone at ground level is a harmful pollutant that irritates our lungs (87).
There is much more at risk here than simply a severe case of sunburn. Unfortunately, the world is already witnessing the early effects of ozone depletion.
Since its discovery in 1985, the ozone hole above Antarctica has grown to three times the size of the continental United States. In addition, according to Gore, “scientists believe it is only a matter of time before significant ozone depletion occurs in the Northern Hemisphere” (87). The ozone layer in that region is already thinning, “almost 10 percent in just four decades” (Gore 87). In just a ten-year span, “researchers had seen an astonishing 340 percent increase in cases of melanoma in the southwestern United States” (Cagin and Dray 325). In 1987, a New York physician treated six patients with “retinal sunburn”. What he discovered was that
All six had been sunbathing on the afternoon of March 29, 1987, an unseasonably warm day that had sent people across the northeast out of doors to parks, backyards and beaches. What none realized, or could have known, was that the balmy weather was accompanied by an “ozone hole” stretching from Michigan to New England. (Cagin and Dray 326)
Also, in the southern hemisphere where ozone depletion is a “fact of life,” residents in that region receive official warnings when high levels of UV light are expected. Families have made a practice of keeping their children indoors between the hours of 10 A. M. and 3 P. M., and outdoor school activities are always scheduled for late afternoon.
One would think that with the prospect of all living organisms upon this planet being roasted to a golden crunch there would be a mad rush by industry and government to halt production and use of CFCs, but that just has not been the case. After the CFC/Ozone theory was proven and became public knowledge in 1975, industries involved in the manufacture and use of CFCs blatantly ignored the threat and continued with their “business as usual” policy. But bowing to consumer activists in June of 1975, “the Johnson Wax Company, the nation’s fifth largest manufacture of aerosol products, announced it would immediately end all uses of CFC propellants in aerosols” (Roan 59). It was in that same month and year that Oregon became the first state to ban CFCs in aerosol sprays. The federal government would wait another year before it took any action, which consisted of a proposal of the FDA and EPA to phase out CFCs in aerosols. An additional year passed before those departments actually came up with a timetable to implement their plan. But this “ban” pertained only to CFCs in aerosols, and included no regulations on CFCs in refrigerants, Styrofoam, or other industrial applications.
For whatever reason, public interest in the ozone issue began to wane in the 1980’s, during the Reagan administration. Phil Brick reveals in his article in Environment magazine that “Ronald Reagan was the first U.S. president to make a concerted effort to reverse the tide of environmental regulation . . . ” (20). George Bush reneged on his promise to be “the environmental president.” The environmental movement was revived for a short while when the Clinton administration took office. There seemed to be renewed interest in environmental issues with the President’s appointment of prominent environmentalists to top cabinet-level positions. Unfortunately, after just three years in office, the administration seems to have forgotten most of its environmental initiatives.
On the international front, delegates from forty-three nations met in Montreal in 1987, and signed an agreement calling for eventual worldwide CFC reductions of fifty percent. But two months after the treaty was signed, new scientific evidence became available which disclosed ozone depletion was occurring at a much faster rate than previous models had predicted. Roan tells us the scientific community informed the world that “Without global controls, the world would lose half its ozone layer by 2075” (227). The United States ratified the Montreal Protocol the following year without calling for any of the resolutions lawmakers had suggested to speed up CFC reductions.
Twenty years have passed since the CFC/Ozone theory was discovered. Since that time, scientific evidence clearly indicates that not only is the earth losing its protective shield, it is disappearing at an alarmingly rapid rate. And still the nations of the world are pumping millions of tons of CFCs into the atmosphere each year. Regulations in the United States have contributed to a decrease in the amount of CFCs this nation emits. Figures from the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicate a drop in those emissions from 278,000 metric tons in 1987 to 180,000 metric tons in 1993 (235). But with the allowance in increased use of CFCs by developing third world countries afforded by the Montreal Protocol, global total reduction in their use will amount to only 35 percent (Roan 227). Government regulations appear to be only a band-aid on a wound of immense proportions.
The chief opponent to a ban on CFCs is industry, and with good reason. A total ban would eliminate the entire industry and billions of dollars in profits. The Dupont Corporation, which supplies one-quarter of the world’s demand for CFCs, has been the leader in both time and money spent in lobbying lawmakers for softer regulations on the CFC issue. That time and money would have been much better spent on research for safer inexpensive alternatives to CFCs. To discourage concerned consumers, industry has maintained that a switch to alternatives would be cost-prohibitive and less efficient, but that has not proven true.
There has already been a substitute found for Freon that would cost approximately three to five time more. But in the case of air-conditioning and coolants, a substitute is not even needed. New technology has found a way to recycle the chemicals that can be safely removed from discarded air-conditioning and refrigeration units. It is apparent that there are billions of dollars to be made by industry in a transition to alternatives. Initially consumers may have to absorb the higher costs of the new technology, but that cost would appear to be minimal compared to the prospect of a world without an ozone layer. Aid to farmers in these recent years of record drought is already costing taxpayers billions of dollars. That is only a drop in the bucket compared to the resulting health care costs projected for the very near future.
Although action is already being taken on the CFC/Ozone issue on both global and national levels, there are steps we, as individuals, can take to heal our “shattered sky.” Consumers need to make a practice of reading labels on spray cans, and avoid using products containing any of the chlorine compounds. Air-conditioning hoses on automobiles should be changed at the first sign of wear by an agent certified in the proper handling of coolants to prevent unnecessary leaking of CFCs into the atmosphere. Proper disposal of those coolants used in refrigeration and air-conditioning is now mandated by the federal government and any violations of those laws could result in a heavy fine. Consumers can ask dry cleaners to avoid the use of CFC solvents in cleaning garments. Probably the most important role individuals have in the CFC/Ozone issue is education.
Public interest in environmental issues has been in a steady decline since the beginning of this decade, and with it the “awareness” of environmental hazards which was evident in the 70’s and 80’s. In a recent door-to-door survey I conducted of neighborhood households, only 20 percent of the adult respondents knew what CFCs were, and even fewer were aware of health risks involved in the use of those chemical agents (see Appendix for a copy of the survey and raw data).
Education and awareness are essential keys to a healthy future for our world. It is human nature to ignore those problems not evident to the five senses. If it is not seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touchable, it is soon forgotten. So just imagine . . . picture a world brown and seared, empty of green and of life, windswept and barren. This is the future of our planet Earth, destroyed by the most intelligent creature to ever live upon it.
In a door-to-door survey I recently conducted, twenty adults were asked the following multiple-choice questions:
- Chloroflourocarbons are chemicals found in:
- A. Food preservatives
- B. Water supply
- C. Refrigerants
- D. Household detergents
- The number of respondants to each choice was:
- A. 3
- B. 5
- C. 4
- D. 8
- The use of CFC’s can lead to health problems such as:
- A. High blood pressure and heart attacks
- B. Skin cancer and cataracts
- C. Diabetes
- D. Severe allergies and asthma
- The number of respondants to each choice was:
- A. 8
- B. 2
- C. 3
- D. 7
- Brick, Phil. “Determined Opposition: The Wise Use Movement Challenges Environmentalism.”Environment October 1995: 17.
- Cagin, Seth and Philip Dray.Between Earth and Sky: How CFC’s Changed Our World and Endangered The Ozone Layer. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
- Gore, Al.Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. New York: Plume, 1993.
- Icair Network. “Atmospheric Ozone.” Ozone Information. World Wide Web: http://icair.iac.org.nz/ozone/ozone.html (9k)
- Roan, Sharon.Ozone Crisis: The Fifteen Year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency. New York: Wiley, 1989.
- S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1995 (115th edition). Washington, D. C., 1995.