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Ozone Warning : He Sounded Alarm, Paid Heavy Price

July 14, 1988|LANIE JONES | Times Staff Writer

Half-rimmed black glasses pushed midway down his nose, Prof. F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland leaned back in a swivel desk chair, wearily studying the ceiling.

A day earlier he had testified before a Senate subcommittee in Washington. Now the 61-year-old chemist was back in his cluttered office at UC Irvine where, still fighting jet lag, he was laying plans for an experiment in Alaska on atmospheric pollution and fending off speaking invitations from Rotary clubs, the West German Parliament, the American Chemical Society and several universities.

Rowland sighed. For the first time in 14 years, he was swamped with speaking requests.

'Ban Has Been Lifted'

The interest was gratifying but more than a little ironic. "They won't admit it but this means some kind of ban has been lifted," Rowland said.

For as Rowland and others recount it, ever since 1974, when he and UCI postdoctoral fellow Mario Molina first theorized that the Earth's protective ozone layer was being damaged by synthetic chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Rowland has paid a price for his ideas.

In part, that's because Rowland didn't just make his discovery, write up the results and quietly return to his lab.

Instead, shocked by the implications of his research, he took an unusual public stance--doggedly telling reporters, Congress, half a dozen state legislatures, and just about anyone who seemed interested that ozone loss could lead to skin cancer and catastrophic climatic change. And, again and again for more than a decade, he urged that CFCs be banned.

In doing so, Rowland took on a $28-billion-a-year industry whose products, ranging from home insulating materials to solvents for electronic equipment, have become an essential part of modern life.

Safe, Industry Says

The industry reaction was to discount Rowland and Molina's hypothesis. Their profitable chlorofluorocarbons were safe, CFC manufacturers said; there was no proof that the ozone layer was damaged.

And in mounting a defense for CFCs, they also turned their attack on Rowland.

In the mid-1970s, industry scientists and executives disparaged the ozone depletion hypothesis as nonsense and in August, 1977, the president of one aerosol manufacturing firm suggested that criticism of CFCs was "orchestrated by the Ministry of Disinformation of the KGB."

At congressional hearings and academic meetings, there were suggestions that Rowland was a publicity seeker or, one of Rowland's UCI colleagues recalled, "some kind of a nut."

When Rowland spoke at colleges and press conferences, he was often followed by a couple of CFC industry officials who watched from a distance or peppered him with hostile questions, according to industry observers.

Sometimes he was invited to speak on CFCs at professional meetings, then found the invitation quietly withdrawn.

But now, like the proverbial prophet dishonored in his own land, Rowland has turned out to be right.

Last March 15, a new report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration showed that CFCs were destroying ozone far more rapidly than previously believed. The new measurements showed that from 1969 to 1987, ozone levels above the United States fell 2.3%, with losses of up to 6.2% in the winter. The report reinforced earlier research showing a growing hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic, also linked to CFCs.

Meanwhile, 31 nations agreed to a treaty aimed at reducing CFC consumption by 50% by the end of the century.

End of Production Promised

Reacting to the NASA study, the Du Pont Co. of Wilmington, Del., the world's largest manufacturer of CFCs, promised for the first time to phase out production of the compounds. Three weeks later, 15 manufacturers of foam food containers pledged to convert from CFCs to safer compounds by the end of the year.

Most spokesmen for major American CFC manufacturers either declined comment on Rowland or denied that he has been treated unfairly.

"We are going to decline to be interviewed on the subject of Rowland. We don't want to get into personalities. We don't think that has anything to do with the subject of the science," said Kathy H. Forte, a senior public affairs specialist with the Freon Products division of Du Pont Co.

However, L. Craig Skaggs, Du Pont's public affairs manager, noted later that Rowland had become "somewhat of a celebrity in the scientific community" because of his views on ozone loss and "may have suffered unduly as anyone does who offers up a new idea."

Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for a Responsible CFC Policy, a Rosslyn, Va., lobby that represents several hundred CFC manufacturers and users, said Rowland's outspokenness made him controversial.

"When you have been an advocate, does that color your scientific judgment?" Fay asked. "That's something they (scientists) guard more than anything else--their perceived neutrality. And that influences opinion of Rowland."

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