Who's Polluting The Atmosphere? Scientists Discover 4 New Possibly Illegal CFCs In Greenland And Tasmania

By Ben Wolford on March 10, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

Scientists believe new CFCs may have come from pesticide or refrigerant factories. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Scientists believe new CFCs may have come from pesticide or refrigerant factories. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Scientists were surprised by the discovery of trace amounts of four new ozone-attacking chemicals in the atmosphere. The three chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, and one hydrochloroflurocarbon, HCFC, found in Greenland snow samples and Tasmanian airspace may be illegal under an international treaty to repair the depleted ozone.

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In 1985, three British scientists reported in Nature an alarming finding: there was a gaping hole in the ozone over Antarctica. The ozone is the planet's one defense against the bulk of cancer-causing ultraviolet solar rays. The discovery of ozone depletion was so startling that the international community came together two years later with an agreement to reduce the output of chemicals, especially chlorine, that lower the concentration of O3 in the stratosphere. That treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, has been successful in slowing the depletion of the ozone.

That's why this new discovery of potentially banned CFCs is so troubling. "We simply don't know if the emissions we have found in the atmosphere come from exempted emissions or if they are from some illegal manufacture somewhere," Johannes Laube told New Scientist. Laube, a British atmospheric scientist, led a team that published its findings in Nature Geoscience this week. "Either way, the emissions are increasing fast, which makes this worrying."

Laube and others acknowledge that the quantities of the CFCs is low. An official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called them "very minor releases," but he added that Laube's paper has put the environmental community on the lookout for violations and increases. According to Laube, these chemicals are byproducts of certain refrigerants and pesticides. The team's research discovered evidence of the CFCs in Greenland ahead of Tasmania, Reuters reported, suggesting the chemicals originated in the north before sweeping south.

The chemicals first appeared in the 1960s, then continued to accumulate in the atmosphere to 74,000 tons of the stuff in 2012, about half of which has accumulated in just the last couple of years, New Scientist reported.. Compared with other CFCs, the output of these chemicals is pretty minuscule; in the 1980s before the Montreal Protocol, humans were pumping out 1 million tons of CFCs a year. Laube and his team plan to continue taking measurements to narrow a probable source. It's possible some company is exploiting loopholes in the treaty. Laube told Reuters that the gases may possibly act as greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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