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A Mystery Source Is Producing Banned Ozone-Destroying Chemicals, Shocking Scientists

17 May 2018

David Doniger, director of the climate and clean energy program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group in Washington, said the new emissions were "bad for the ozone layer and bad for climate change".

The measurements suggested that there was a new, unreported source of CFC-11, which was previously used as a cooling agent in refrigerators and as a propellant in spray cans as well as in the production of styrofoam. The startling resurgence of the chemical, reported in Nature, will likely spark an global investigation to track down the mysterious source.

As of now, the study points to the chemical originating from Eastern Asia, but that was the maximum information researchers could gather from the samples collected. By the end of the year, the Montreal Protocol was signed in a global effort to ban the products and heal the ozone layer.

Zaelke said he was surprised by the findings, not just because the chemical has always been banned, but also because alternatives already exist, making it hard to imagine what the market for CFC-11 today would be. The report also points out that there are alternatives to CFC-11 which are easy to come by and safer to use, so there is no real-world reason to continue using it, making the case all the more perplexing. If not, it could possibly slow down the recovery of the ozone layer, especially since CFC-11 is responsible for about a quarter of all chlorine reaching the stratosphere.

A bucket full of empty aerosol cans from the 1990s waiting for proper disposal
Aerosols were a common source of CFCs through the 1990s

Scientists have detected an unexpected rise in atmospheric levels of CFC-11, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) highly damaging to the ozone layer.

The researchers show that CFC-11 levels, measured at a number of remote monitoring sites around the world, decreased in line with expectations between 2002 and 2011.

Scientists identify mysterious rise of Ozone-destroying chemicals.

The situation got even worse in the years after 2012 when the rate of CFC decline slowed by 50 percent, which could have only been possible due to an increase in CFC emissions.

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To put that in perspective, production of CFC-11, marketed under the trade name Freon, peaked at about 430,000 tons per year in the 1980s.

"It is not clear why any country would want to start to produce, and inadvertently release, CFC-11, when cost effective substitutes have been available for a long while", Watson continued.

However, if no action is taken on the new source of emissions, it could be highly significant.

If the issue is tackled now, the damage will be minor, Montzka says. Since 2006, countries have reported close to zero production of CFC11.

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"This treaty can not afford not to follow its tradition and keep its compliance record", he said. This insults everybody who's worked on this for the last 30 years.

At its most depleted, around the turn of the 21st century, the ozone layer had declined by about five percent. "Further work is needed to figure out exactly why emissions of CFC-11 are increasing and if something can be done about it soon".

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A Mystery Source Is Producing Banned Ozone-Destroying Chemicals, Shocking Scientists