Ozone Depletion

Methane gas and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the inert chemicals used for refrigeration and other industrial purposes, are broken down into active compounds by sunlight at high altitudes. The breakdown products destroy ozone, a form of oxygen that in the stratosphere provides a natural shield for living organisms against ultraviolet radiation. Increased ultraviolet radiation correspondingly increases skin cancers. There is evidence the ozone shield has gone through lengthy cycles of expansion and contraction over millions of years, but there appears to be little question that ozone breakdown has been accelerated by industrial pollutants. The weakening of the ozone shield has been recognized as a serious global problem by North American countries and the European Economic Community. In 1987, the United States proposed a 50% reduction on production and uses of chlorofluorocarbons by the year 2000, and in 1989, the European Economic Community proposed a total ban on uses of chlorofluorocarbons, also by the year 2000. In 1998, however, developing nations, such as India, China, and Brazil, still had plans to expand the production of chlorofluorocarbons and contended that a ban would place them at an economic disadvantage. Since global cooperation is urgently needed, the major industrial nations have been seeking ways to allay the economic concerns of third-world countries. An international meeting, with mixed results, was convened in 1992 to try to foster global cooperation on this issue, but by the early 2000s, concrete evidence of such cooperation was still not in evidence.

Chlorofluorocarbons apparently are not the only force actively destroying the protective ozone layer. Bromine-based compounds called halons, which are commonly found in electronic equipment, such as computer protection systems, and in portable fire extinguishers, are reported to be as much as 3 to 10 times more destructive of ozone than chlorofluorocarbons. Halon concentrations in the atmosphere increased about 20% a year between 1980 and 1986, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some scientists believe the actual concentrations to be as much as 50% higher than that, and as a result of their strong recommendations, powders and other inert gases are being substituted for halons in fire extinguishers now being made.

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