By Jane Orient
Once the subject of a grade B science- fiction movie, the Blob has reappeared on the news wires and in science journals. This “Menace of Mass Destruction” arose from our cherished appliances [refrigerators and air conditioners], just as the “threat of nuclear annihilation seems to be fading” (Arizona Republic 2/11/92).
The Blob is made of “ozone-eating chemicals, principally chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s [e.g. Freon],” which have been “found guilty of gnawing a hole in the ozone layer” (Science 255:797- 798, 1992). This winter, “the blob of high chlorine monoxide slipped off the pole for several weeks in January and hung over Europe from London to Moscow” (ibid., p. 798). Summertime levels of 0.025 parts per billion (ppb) had quadrupled to “alarming” levels of 0.100 ppb by December. An all time high of 1.5 ppb was recorded in January.
According to a NASA prediction, the Blob could eat between 30 to 40% of the ozone over Canada this spring. (The natural variability of ozone thickness with season and latitude is about 25%.) If it does, dire effects are prophesied.
“Ultraviolet on the lncrease”
“It is almost truism: a loss of stratospheric ozone means there will be more harmful ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) at the Earth’s surface,” announced Paul Crutzen under his headline (Nature 356: 104-105, 1992). Friends of Earth predicted that even one year of continued CFC production could produce hundreds of thousands of skin cancer cases and 10,000 additional deaths in the U.S. alone. A UN report speculated that ozone depletion would speed the progression of AIDS by an as-yet-unknown mechanism, “although ultraviolet rays would not necessarily increase the rate of infection.” (AP)
Warning people about the predicted ozone depletion, the Canadian environment minister urged people not to panic, but to keep their children out of the sun and to wear sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen, even on balmy spring days when the temperature reaches -3%C.
Contradicting his own headline, Crutzen observes that less ozone does not necessarily mean more UV-B. Sulfate particles, tropospheric ozone due to air pollution, and even cloudiness tend to decrease ultraviolet levels. Crutzen reports on a theoretical method of calculating UV-B levels. The maximum increase in dose in the Antarctic spring is estimated to be only 7% of the total typically received at the Equator.
Crutzen concludes that we need a worldwide network of UV-B monitoring stations so that we can substitute measurements for calculations. (Actually, measurements were made between 1974 and 1986, but were discontinued due to cost. They showed decreasing penetration by ultraviolet radiation, according to Dixy Lee Ray in Trashing the Planet.)
Is Ozone on the Decrease?
The ozone decrease is a prediction of a computer model involving complex photochemistry and atmospheric dynamics, including stratospheric clouds that form only under special condition in the Antarctic cold (Sci Amer, June, 1992). The nuclear winter hypothesis was also based on a computer model. Carl Sagan’s prediction from that model– a global climatic catastrophe caused by the oil fires in Kuwait–was recently tested.
To test the ozone model, we need satellite measurements of stratospheric ozone, which have become available only recently: the jagged data line in the figure. Obviously the zone levels fluctuate wildly. To use these data to “show” an ozone depletion justifying Draconian controls on CFC’s, the EPA drew the sloping line. However, the authors of the report identified a rising trend in ozone after the time of the solar minimum in 1986 (the solid lines were drawn by Peter Beckman). Since ozone is formed through photochemical reactions, it is reasonable to expect that the levels should correlate with solar activity; however, data are available for only one solar cycle.
Banning the Blob
An international accord called the Montreal Protocol bans CFC’s by the year 2000. Based on alarming forecasts (which were not submitted to peer review) and a presumption of CFC guilt, European environment ministers hastened to announce earlier bans. President Bush ordered the end of US production by 1995.
How will the ban affect the atmosphere? We don’t know. Even if the chlorine atoms lead to ozone depletion, the relative contributions of Mt. Pinatubo and CFC’s are not known because radioactive tracer studies have not been done. Michael Kurylo of NASA thinks that an early CFC phase out will reduce stratospheric chlorine by a few tenths of a ppb from a predicted high of 4.1 ppb (Science, op. cit.).
There is no time to wait for data. The Blob might be ready to engulf us. Science can’t prove that it isn’t.
Costs and Benefits: the Ban on CFC’s
Let us assume the extremely unlikely proposition that the predictions of ozone thinning are completely accurate. The next question is: Are the benefits gained from banning CFC’s worth the cost?
Two plausible consequences might result from the occurrence of a dreaded ozone “hole”: a detrimental effect on certain plants and an increase in skin cancer. Both presume an increased penetration of ultraviolet radiation.
The seasonal thinning of the ozone in the Antarctic has a measurable effect on the productivity of phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Against a presumed natural background variability plus or minus 25%, a recent study showed an estimated 2 to 4% loss attributable to ozone thinning. The authors concluded that the ecological significance of their observations “remains to be determined ” (Science 255:952-959, 1992).
It is a truism that pale-faced people need to beware of sun exposure, whether or not the “earth’s umbrella” of ozone becomes more leaky than it already is. Those who lack melanin pigment in their skin are susceptible to ultraviolet-induced skin cancers. Most sun-induced skin cancers are readily curable, but they are hardly desirable.
How much are Americans willing to pay to avert an increased risk of skin cancer? How many skin cancers are they willing to endure for the sake of having air conditioning or a home refrigerator? How much should the Third World be required to pay in terms of foregone economic development to reduce the risk of skin cancer for palefaced Americans? And how much of a decrease in the yield of certain crops is a tolerable cost of refrigeration, without which 40% of the world’s food would spoil?
The wire services, the AAAS, and environmental activists do not ask these questions. They simply assert that substitutes for CFC’s can be found.
CFC’s are widely used because they are stable, nonflammable, nontoxic, non-corrosive, and relatively inexpensive. They are excellent for fire extinguishers and insulation. Most importantly, they are found in 610 million refrigerators and freezers, 120 million cold storage units, 100 million refrigerated transports, and 150 million auto air conditioners. Replacing just the refrigerated food transportation vehicles would cost about $150 billion. The equipment would have to be scrapped; the compressors are designed to be used with a certain type of Freon.
Freon substitutes are under development but not in widespread production. They will be under patent (the patent on Freon has expired), and the cheapest is about 30 times more costly than the freon-12 that it replaces. The substitutes are flammable and possibly carcinogenic. In addition, they are suspected of being greenhouse gases (Nature 344:513-516, 1990). The same political activists who are pressing for the ban on CFC’s want halocarbons (HCFC’s) to be banned by the year 2000 to prevent global warming.
Many American women are unwilling or unable to pay $85 for a mammogram to detect early breast cancer, a fatal disease. America is allegedly unable to afford $300 per person to construct shelters against known weapons of mass destruction. How will America pay for the ban on CFC’s, which might cost $800 per person per year?
Americans are likely to pay only if forced to do so. That is probably the reason for the heavy penalties on the illegal use of Freon, for example a $25,000 fine and five years imprisonment for transporting a refilled cylinder.
Will the Third World voluntarily forego its economic aspirations in the name of protecting the ozone? Can the United Nations force Libya and Iraq to adhere to the Montreal Protocol when they produce tons of nerve gas in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention?
Perhaps it can. After all, nerve gas is produced clandestinely, and a few drops is sufficient to perform the function of killing a human being. Freon benefits people only if they can obtain it and use it openly, and it takes about 2.5 pounds to charge an automobile air conditioner or 0.5 pounds to charge a refrigerator.
America is rushing to protect the ozone shield against a hypothetical threat at a real and staggering cost.
What will America do to shield its citizens from known threats at a much lower cost?
Dr. Jane Orient is the Vice President of Physicians for Civil Defense, Tucson AZ
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