Traffic: the Rise of CFC Contraband

The latest booming black market in illegal goods involves substances that offer a different kind of high - one that reaches clear into the stratosphere and blasts the ozone layer. Banned ozone depleting substances (ODSs) such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are the newest contraband to create headaches for U.S. enforcement agencies.

For example, in July a federal grand jury in Connecticut returned a 32 count indictment charging five men with engaging in a scheme to unlawfully import and sell CFC gases in the United States. Referring to the case (United States v. Himes, D. Conn., No. 3012CR174, 7/25/01), the U.S. Justice Department stated that the defendants participated in a $24 million tax fraud, wire fraud and money laundering scheme in which they allegedly imported and sold more than 500 metric tons - or more than 1 million pounds - of CFCs into the United States from 1995 to 1998.

Many may find it difficult to believe that CFCs are increasingly taking on a role once reserved for controlled substances like cocaine and heroin. CFCs started out innocently enough when they were invented in 1928. They were used in aerosols, foams, refrigeration, air conditioners, solvents, fire extinguishers, etc. Unfortunately, scientists later realized that CFCs are long lived and that their emissions deplete the stratospheric ozone. This ozone depletion was dramatically confirmed through the Antarctic "ozone hole, " which was discovered in 1985.

The ozone layer is found in the stratosphere between 10 and 50 kilometers (km) above the ground. Ozone molecules have three atoms of oxygen instead of the normal two. The ozone layer protects us from the harmful effects of certain wavelengths of ultra-violet (UV) light from the sun, specifically UV-B. Any significant decrease in the stratospheric ozone causes in an increase of UV-B radiation reaching the earth's surface. Such increases in UV-B radiation can result in higher numbers of skin cancers, suppress the immune system, exacerbate eye disorders such as cataracts and affect plants and animals.

Under the direction of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (, the governments of the world started working together in 1985 to deal with the issue of ODSs. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone was adopted and since then has been modified five times. The Montreal Protocol seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate the emissions of human-made ozone depleters.

Under the Protocol, 178 counties have committed to a stringent schedule for reducing and eventually phasing out their production and use of ODSs. The first major milestone was the "freeze" of CFCs that came into effect in July 1999. Now those countries, including their militaries, must cut CFCs by 50 percent by 2005, 85 percent by 2007 and completely phase them out by 2010. Similar control measures exist for other ODSs important to the military, including halons.

CFCs also are subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) of 1990, which required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to phase out the production and importing of five ozone depleters: CFCs, halons, carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform (all called Class I substances) and hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HCFCs) (called Class II substances). CAAA also gave EPA the responsibility to add other ozone depleters to the phaseout list.

Experts and diplomats from all the countries that are parties to the Montreal Protocol met in Montreal in July 2001 to review options for further tightening the international regime for protecting the stratospheric ozone layer.

"Major concerns include illegal trade in CFCs and other controlled substances, the lack of alternatives for certain small but essential uses and the development and marketing by industry of new ozone-depleting chemicals not yet covered by the Protocol," said Klaus Toepfe, UNEP Executive Director.

While great progress has been made in reducing the emissions of CFCs and other chemicals, the ozone layer continues to thin as a result of past emissions. In September 2000, satellite measurements reported that the ozone hole over the Antarctic had reached a record 28.3 million square km (some one million square km more than the previous 1998 record).

As well, according to a recent UNEP report, the Canadian Arctic declined by 20 percent for a short time this spring, while over Northern Siberia the decline exceeded 30 percent in early March 2001. Declines of 10 to 12 percent were measured over large areas of densely settled Europe and declines of 6 to 10 percent were recorded this year over North America.

Another concern is that increasing global climate change might interfere with the ozone layer's healing process. This issue will be addressed by the Scientific Assessment Panel in their 2002 report on the scientific assessment of the ozone layer.

Many scientists predict that the ozone layer will start to recover in the near future and will fully recover some time in the mid-21st century. However, this recovery will only happen if the Montreal Protocol continues to be vigorously enforced. To ensure this happens, enforcement agencies world-wide will have to aggressively fight the trafficking of illegal ozone depleters.

This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 11, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

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