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A Third-World Threat to Ozone Layer

Health: Illegal CFCs are smuggled in for use in refrigeration systems because they are cheaper than safer substances.


NEW DELHI — Tons of gases that eat away at the Earth's ozone layer are smuggled into India and other developing nations each year in an illegal trade that threatens a landmark treaty to phase out the harmful chemicals by the end of the decade, environmentalists say.

The gases, mainly chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are used in air conditioning and refrigerators. Environmentalists say their continued use--particularly in populous developing countries--could undo efforts to repair the ozone layer under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The treaty, ratified by more than 170 countries, requires that the most harmful ozone-depleting gases, such as CFCs, be phased out in developing countries by 2010.

Industrialized nations already stopped using them in 1996, but companies there are still allowed to produce a limited quantity for medicinal use and for supplying the basic needs of developing nations.

But the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit organization based in London and Washington, says a multimillion-dollar parallel market is growing fast in poorer, tropical countries where old equipment has yet to be switched over to cleaner chemicals. The illicit gases are also attractive because they're cheaper than less destructive gases.

"We need to clamp down on this illegal trade," said Ezra Clark, a scientific expert for the group. "If not, ridding the world of these harmful chemicals will remain unfinished business."

Delegates from 108 countries, representing governments, United Nations agencies and international organizations met in Sri Lanka last fall to discuss ways to combat the problem. The meeting agreed to focus on implementing existing commitments rather than negotiating new rules.

Under the Montreal treaty, developing countries receive hundreds of millions of dollars in World Bank funds to phase out CFCs.

This would allow the hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole--currently estimated at 9.6 million square miles--to gradually repair itself, experts believe.

The hole allows large amounts of harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth's surface, increasing the incidence of skin cancer and cataracts, reducing farm yields and harming fish stocks.

Refrigerator manufacturers in developing nations from Brazil to Egypt are replacing CFCs with less harmful chemicals. But illicit trafficking in ozone-depleting substances is estimated to total 20,000 tons yearly, the Environmental Investigation Agency says.

The group expected about 1,000 tons of such substances, mainly CFC gas, to be smuggled into India in 2001.

Brought in from neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh in canisters hidden in food sacks or slung under rickshaws, the gas is sold mainly to small-scale businesses at 200 rupees ($4) a canister, two-thirds the price of safer gases, the group claims.

"Obviously, if you're a small businessman in India and you can buy CFCs cheaper, you will continue to do so rather than switch to cleaner chemicals," said Julian Newman, a senior campaigner for the environmental group.

Usha Chandarskhar, head of the ozone division at India's Ministry of Environment and Forests, said that the ministry is aware of the smuggling but that the customs service is responsible for controlling illicit trade. None of the several customs officials contacted by the Associated Press were willing to comment.

Newman said CFC smuggling in India is "just the tip of the iceberg." He said it occurs throughout the Middle East and in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

Industrialized nations have updated their cooling equipment, leaving poorer, developing nations as the main buyers in the parallel market.

From producing 350,000 tons of ozone-depleting substances a year in the late 1980s, European manufacturers produced just 35,000 tons last year, according to industry estimates.

"We are reducing production as demand for CFCs decreases," said Nick Campbell, environment manager for fluorinated products at Atofina, a major European chemicals maker.

He said there are many places along distribution channels for legal CFCs to be sidetracked into the illicit trade.

Indian gas producers say the problem is worsened because they haven't been able to acquire Western-developed technology for making cleaner gases, which would lower the cost.

U.S. and European companies want to preserve their control over the market, said S.C. Wadhwa, vice president of Gujarat Flurochemicals, one of India's four main CFC manufacturers.

The Indian Institute for Chemical Technology in Hyderabad has been trying to develop a process for making cleaner gas since the mid-1990s but still isn't ready even for pilot tests, Wadhwa said.

Campbell said Atofina was willing to talk about technology transfer. "It's a question of making the judgment when a market is ready for domestic production," he said.

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