The $130 Billion CFC Shakedown

By Cohen, Bonner | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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The $130 Billion CFC Shakedown


Cohen, Bonner, The World and I


Major media organs like to trumpet their commitment to reporting "all the news that's fit to print." But Americans--indeed people the world over--are paying dearly for the mainstream media's failure to provide balanced coverage of an environmental scam of gigantic proportions: the banning of CFCs.

CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, are allegedly ozone-destroying chemicals, the production of which has been banned in the United States and scores of other countries since January 1, 1996. The ban was slapped on because of fears that malignant skin cancers would proliferate as a thinner ozone layer allowed more carcinogenic ultraviolet rays to reach the earth.

The ban's price tag in the United States alone is estimated at $130 billion, or approximately $1,300 per family, as Americans dig deeper to replace or retrofit equipment that cannot accept the expensive chemicals that have replaced CFCs.

For decades, CFCs like Freon were harnessed as refrigerants in air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, and chillers. CFCs have also been used in fire extinguishers (halon), cleaning solvents, and aerosol propellants and in the manufacture of plastic foams.

Because they are nonflammable, nonvolatile, and nontoxic, the chemicals present no direct risks to living organisms. Millions of people have opened the doors to their refrigerators or flipped on their air conditioners without ever giving a thought to the chemicals that made these appliances both possible and safe.

So how did such "friendly" chemicals become feared almost as much as deadly nerve agents? The answer is that CFCs were targeted for extinction because they found themselves at the center of a convoluted theory that proved so beguiling that it captured the imagination of a generally uncritical media. Then, journalists allowed themselves to be manipulated into presenting a largely unbalanced picture of the scientific issues involved.

The war against CFCs

The distorted, sensationalized picture that emerged led the United States, along with 160 other nations, to sign the Montreal Protocol in an effort to phase out supposedly ozone-depleting substances and restore the ozone layer.

The media coverage also helped produce a conventional wisdom on the effects of CFCs on the earth's protective ozone layer. This "wisdom" has made its way into textbooks, government policy, and, thus, into the consciousness of millions of people throughout the world.

It is easily forgotten that, until CFCs were developed, many people died from exposure to toxic fumes of ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide, which were commonly used as refrigerants.

In 1929, more than 100 people died in a Cleveland hospital from a leak in the refrigeration system. This tragedy prompted a frantic search for a safe substitute, a search that ended successfully a year later when scientists at Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, developed the CFC known as Freon.

Over the course of the next several decades, CFCs grew in popularity, as an increasingly prosperous industrialized world found new uses for these versatile and inexpensive chemicals. Yet by 1987, CFCs had become a pariah targeted by the above-mentioned Montreal Protocol.

Theory of ozone depletion

First postulated by University of California chemist Sherwood Rowland and his postdoctoral assistant, Mario Molina, in 1971, the theory of ozone depletion has undergone several modifications over the years.

Roughly, the theory states that, after escaping from cooling coils, CFCs gradually percolate into the stratosphere. There, they decompose, releasing chlorine atoms, which destroy ozone molecules. This, in turn, is said to lead to a thinning of the earth's ozone layer. The reduced level of ozone, it is further argued, results in an increased level of solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the surface of the earth. Exposure to increased UV radiation is said to lead to an increase in skin cancer rates.

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The $130 Billion CFC Shakedown
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