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Du Pont Will Stop Making Ozone Killers

March 25, 1988|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Du Pont Co., the world's leading producer of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, called Thursday for a total phase-out of the chemicals to prevent destruction of the Earth's protective ozone layer.

In a dramatic reversal of its position, Du Pont said recent scientific findings about the extent of global ozone depletion had convinced the company that an international treaty calling for 50% cuts in CFC production over the next decade is not stringent enough to prevent serious damage to the ozone layer.

"Du Pont sets as its goal an orderly transition to the total phase-out" of the most damaging CFC products, the company said in a statement delivered Thursday to the Environmental Protection Agency and several members of Congress.

Du Pont invented CFCs and its sales of them amount to $600 million annually, about one-fourth of the world's supply. The chemicals, marketed as Freon and under other trade names, are used in refrigerators, air conditioners, as foam-blowing agents and, outside the United States, as propellants in aerosol products.

Three weeks ago, Du Pont Chairman Richard E. Heckert said the company did not intend to halt production of CFC products because "at the moment, scientific evidence does not point to the need for dramatic CFC emission reductions."

Officials said Thursday that the company's position changed abruptly last week when an international scientific team reported that stratospheric ozone levels had dropped by as much as 3% since 1969 in some densely populated areas of the United States and Europe, and by 5% or more in some areas of the Southern Hemisphere.

The decrease was more severe than scientists had expected, leading some to question the adequacy of a 31-nation pact signed last year in Montreal and approved recently by the Senate.

Rays Cause Skin Cancer

Stratospheric ozone shields the Earth from the sun's most damaging ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin cancer, cataracts and immune system damage. Experts estimate that each percentage point of decrease in ozone could lead to a 5% to 7% increase in skin cancer.

According to a Du Pont analysis, the Montreal agreement will allow the rate of ozone destruction to more than double over the next century, even if the pact were accelerated to take full effect in five years instead of 10.

The company's statement did not say when it intends to cease production of CFCs, but Du Pont officials said the company hopes to have alternatives for refrigeration available within five years. Environmental manager Joseph M. Steed said it would take that long to test potential alternatives for toxicity problems and to construct new production facilities.

Offsetting Lost Jobs

Steed said that "over the long term, it's our goal" that jobs making replacement compounds should offset lost CFC jobs. One of the company's plants is in Antioch, Calif.

Du Pont has already introduced substitutes for some applications, including new blowing agents for foam food packaging and new cleaning solvents for electronic circuitry.

If alternatives are not ready at the time CFCs are phased out, the company said, there could be "changes in everyday living"--including the need to redesign airtight buildings to admit breezes until alternate air-conditioning equipment is available.

Environmentalists Applaud

Du Pont's announcement was applauded by environmental groups, who had urged deeper CFC reductions during negotiations on the Montreal agreement.

"A late conversion is better than no conversion at all," said attorney David D. Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

EPA Administrator Lee M. Thomas called the announcement encouraging and "an unmistakable signal that alternatives and substitutes to CFCs can be made readily available in the near future."

The statement also was welcomed on Capitol Hill, where pending legislation would require the United States to go beyond the Montreal agreement in reducing CFC emissions.

'Last Nail in Coffin'

"This is the last nail in the coffin for CFCs," one Senate aide said. "CFCs are finished."

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has scheduled hearings on the issue before his Environment and Public Works subcommittee next week, called the statement "a very responsible move. Du Pont must now press their industry colleagues."

Baucus was one of three senators who recently wrote to Du Pont to remind the company it had pledged in 1974 to cease production of CFCs if the compounds were ever found to be harmful. The letter was generally regarded as an embarrassment for Du Pont, which prides itself on its reputation as an environmentally conscious company.

Du Pont officials said the letter did not affect their decision, but when company officials paid visits to several senators Thursday to describe the new policy, they omitted Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), who instigated the letter.

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