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World

July 11, 2018

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Mysterious source of illegal ozone-killing emissions revealed

A mysterious surge in emissions of an illegal ozone-destroying chemical has been tracked down to plastic foam manufacturers in China, according to an on-the-ground.

The chemical, trichlorofluoromethane or CFC-11, has been banned around the world since 2010 and is a potent destroyer of ozone, which protects life on Earth from UV radiation, and strong greenhouse gas. A shock rise in the gas in recent years was revealed by atmospheric scientists in May, but they could only narrow the source to somewhere in East Asia.

The Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organisation, has now identified widespread use of CFC-11 factories in China that make insulating foams. The EIA’s investigators identified factories that sold the chemicals needed for foam-making, then contacted and visited them.

“We were dumbfounded when out of 21 companies, 18 of them across China confirmed use of CFC-11, while acknowledging the illegality and being very blase about its use,” said Avipsa Mahapatra at the EIA.

Furthermore, the companies said the use of CFC-11 was rife in the sector. “It was very clear. These companies, again and again, told us everybody else does this,” she said.

China is a major producer of the rigid polyurethane foams involved and the EIA calculates that if the illegal use of CFC-11 is pervasive in the 3,500 small- and medium-sized companies that make up the sector, then this would explain the surge. Without action, the CFC-11 emissions would delay the recovery of the planet’s ozone hole by a decade, scientists estimate.

“We didn’t know what on Earth someone would be using CFC-11 for – well, here’s one answer and that’s a surprise,” said Steve Montzka at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado, whose team revealed the surge. “Despite efforts to get rid of this activity, it continues.”

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