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Industry Shivers at Ban on CFC Refrigerants : Environment: An end to production of the ozone-eroding chemicals next year is forcing a costly transformation on American businesses.

November 01, 1994|JACK CHEEVERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As governments around the world intensify their war on chemicals that weaken the Earth's vital ozone layer, people like Ron Ford are becoming part of the collateral damage.

Ford owns an automotive air-conditioning business in Granada Hills that depends on Freon, an ozone-eroding gas widely used as a refrigerant. With the federal government poised to ban production of Freon next year, its price has skyrocketed--and that is costing Ford.

"Customers can't afford it," he said. "Business is way off. And the average customer gets upset at us first, not the government."

Ford is hardly alone in his complaints. Around the nation, the drive to flush Freon and other ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons out of American cars, homes and factories is forcing a costly, and historic, transformation on consumers and industry.

With CFC prices soaring and government imposing new regulations, consumers face higher costs to service their cars and home air conditioners. Reports of CFC smuggling have surfaced. And some industries are converting to a CFC alternative that does no harm to the ozone layer but is a potent contributor to global warming.

Meanwhile, a small but vocal band of "anti-environmentalists" has launched a counteroffensive in Op-Ed pages and magazine columns, arguing that the adverse impact of CFCs has been overstated.

The objects of all this hubbub were once viewed as among the most useful and versatile compounds ever made. CFCs were found in thousands of consumer products and industrial processes, from aerosol sprays to sterilizing agents for medical instruments. They were best-known to consumers as coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators.

But by the late 1980s, CFCs had become widely viewed as environmental villains as more and more scientists concluded that the chemicals were behind an alarming thinning of the stratospheric ozone layer.

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Experts worried that a weakened ozone shield would allow more dangerous ultraviolet radiation to seep through to the Earth's surface, setting the stage for devastating increases in skin cancer and blindness, crop failures and disruptions of the marine food chain.

"The ozone loss over Antarctica has been spectacular," F. Sherwood Rowland, a UC Irvine chemistry professor, said recently. Rowland co-wrote the landmark 1974 study theorizing that CFCs were the culprits behind ozone depletion.

"We don't want that to happen in the Northern Hemisphere. To avoid anything like that happening, we have to have a total ban on chlorofluorocarbons."

In an extraordinary show of international cooperation, more than 20 nations in 1987 signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which sets deadlines for stopping production of CFCs and similar chemicals. More than 130 nations have now signed the accord. In the United States, CFC production must stop by Dec. 31, 1995.

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Prodded by the Montreal treaty and the coming federal ban, U.S. industry is retooling on a large scale. And there have been some striking successes as businesses scramble to rid themselves of CFCs and convert to less environmentally damaging substitutes.

Makers of foam boxes for hamburgers and other fast foods now use materials with no ozone-ruining agents. Electronics firms and other high-tech manufacturers eliminated CFC-based solvents, switching to cleaning processes that rely on water or citrus compounds.

Rocketdyne, the Canoga Park-based aerospace and defense contractor that formerly used CFCs to wash metal parts, now employs a water-vibration technique used for years in ultrasonic denture cleaners. Some manufacturers say they have actually saved money by dumping CFCs, which require more steps in the cleaning process.

As industry has begun to wean itself from the chemicals, domestic CFC production has plummeted. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 126,000 tons of CFCs were manufactured last year, a 62% drop from 1986. Nonetheless, ridding American industry of CFCs remains a monumental task, especially in the air-conditioning and refrigeration sectors.

CFCs still are used in more than 140 million vehicle air conditioners, 160 million home refrigerators, 5 million commercial refrigerators and 80,000 air-conditioning systems in skyscrapers and other large buildings.

For owners of that machinery, the impending CFC production ban leaves three painful choices: replace the equipment, retrofit to run on CFC alternatives or stick with CFCs and face tightening supplies and rising prices. (Although manufacturing CFCs will be outlawed, it will remain legal to use them in air conditioners and other products.)

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The EPA has estimated the cost of cleansing the United States of CFCs through the year 2075 at $45 billion. But that expense will be offset many times, the agency said, by the $32 trillion in savings in the form of reduced rates of skin cancer, crop damage and other problems.

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