Chlorofluorocarbons and the Incredible Shrinking Ozone

By Cohn, Jeffrey P. | FDA Consumer, December-January 1987 | Go to article overview

Chlorofluorocarbons and the Incredible Shrinking Ozone


Cohn, Jeffrey P., FDA Consumer


Chlorofluorocarbons and the Incredible Shrinking Ozone

An unprecedented number of diplomats, environmentalists, and industry leaders from some two dozen nations agreed in September to cut world production and use of chlorofluorocarbons and related chemicals that could destroy the earth's protective atmospheric ozone layer. The agreement represented the first international attempt to restrict use of an air pollutant. It came more than 10 years after the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Consumer Product Safety Commission had proposed, for the first time anywhere, a partial ban on these chemicals.

"This is perhaps the most significant environmental agreement," said Richard Benedick, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, health and natural resources and U.S. ambassador to the world conference in Montreal. "For the first time, the international community has initiated controls on production of an economically valuable commodity before there was tangible evidence of damage."

Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, have been at the center of an intense debate for nearly 15 years over scientific uncertainties and the conflict between environmental protection and economic interests. Once thought resolved by FDA and other federal agencies, the debate was reopened recently because of new scientific findings that indicated CFCs posed more of an immediate environmantal and human health threat than previously thought.

Chlorofluorocarbons are a group of chemicals discovered around 1930 that contain varying numbers of chlorine, fluorine, carbon and, sometimes, bromine atoms. Their physical and chemical properties made them desirable for many industrial and consumer uses. Moreover, because they do not react with other chemicals, CFCs are essentially nontoxic, non-caustic, noncorrosive and nonflammable, and thus seemingly safe for a variety of purposes.

MULTIPURPOSE CHEMICALS

As a result, chlorofluorocarbons are used almost everywhere. They keep refrigerated food cool and fresh and they air-condition our homes, schools, offices and cars. They are used to make plastic insulating foams that improve our country's energy efficiency, the containers that keep hot food hot and cold food cold, and the material that makes furniture cushions cushiony. As a solvent, they clean the chips and circuit boards used in computers and other electronic products. CFCs are also used to freeze perishable foods sold in supermarkets and to sterilize some medical equipment.

Indeed, the Alliance for a Responsible CFC Policy, a trade group of more than 500 chlorofluorocarbon makers and users, estimates that the market value of CFCs produced in the United States alone tops $750 million annually. It further estimates the annual value of goods and services directly dependent on CFCs to be $27 billion. The group says the final, end-use value of products and services made with or relating to CFCs totals $135 billion.

The problem with chlorofluorocarbons, everyone agrees, lies in one of the characteristics that make them so useful: their chemical stability. Once released to the air--whether from an aerosol spray can (a use banned in the United States, but not in most other countries), an old leaky air conditioner, or a food container that begins to degrade--CFCs do not break down chemically. Instead, some last 100 years or more.

(CFCs from leaking refrigerator and freezer units do not harm food, says Kenneth Falci, a consumer safety officer in FDA's division of food and color additives, because they vaporize and dissipate quickly. Falci says FDA does not regulate CFCs used as coolants unless they are intended to be in contact with food. FDA does warn consumers that abusing CFCs by sniffing them in high concentrations could be toxic.)

OZONE DEPLETION

Released chlorofluorocarbons gradually rise into the upper atmosphere. …

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