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Incomplete data on ozone layer harming crops.

There is a certain type of intellect notably among politicians, clergymen, and scientists, that delights in frightening people. The politician proclaims: "if you don't elect me, my opponent will lead you to economic disaster." The preacher exhorts: "Mend your ways or you are doomed to eternal damnation." The scientist assembles unrelated facts and admonishes: "A catastrophe is inevitable."

A prime example of scientific scare is the current concern with the ozone layer in our stratosphere. Scientific ecologists warn that current depletion of this ozone layer will cause unimaginable harm to the growth of tea and coffee crops and all other agricultural commodities, as well as serious difficulties to humans and other animals.

The hypothesis upon which this hazard is based is derived from incomplete computer data; but because it is now unfashionable, even unAmerican, to question any environmental danger, millions of dollars are now being spent both to prove and cure a condition that probably could not and will not even occur.

The Environmental Protection Agency has gone even further with this incomplete computer data and issued a more specific and detailed report on the danger of ozone depletion in the future. They state that if current trends continue: "an additional 40 million cases of skin cancer could strike U.S. residents over the next 88 years with 800,000 of them being fatal." They go on to predict that increased exposure to ultra-violet ray radiation would impair the human immune system, making people more vulnerable to AIDS and other diseases. More people would develop cataracts, they predict. Greater radiation could increase the formation of smog, which increases respiratory problems and other pollution-related health effects.

Let's look at the facts. Ozone is a highly reactive gas having three atoms of oxygen in each molecule instead of the normal two in the oxygen we breathe. The third atom makes ozone extremely toxic if breathed in concentrations above one part per million (ppm). It is found in the atmosphere in varying proportions, about 0.05 ppm at sea level. Merck's Index, an authoritative encyclopedia of chemicals and drugs, notes: "It (ozone) is produced continuously in the outer layers of the atmosphere by the action of solar ultra-violet radiation on the oxygen of the air." It is a bluish gas with a pleasant characteristic odor at concentrations around 1 ppm, but is irritating and injurious at higher concentrations. It is also produced by static electricity from lightning, or in the neighborhood of large, high speed motors. Industrially, it is used for water purification (having advantages over chlorine), in bleaching textiles, oils, and waxes; and in the manufacture of chemical compounds useful in plastics and finishes. In botany, ozone is a phyto-toxicant, mottling or bleaching upper surfaces of leaves, and may cause bronzing or glazing of underneath surfaces. It can cause serious harm to crops in high concentration.

Ultra-violet light is radiant electromagnetic energy, with wave lengths occupying the region between visible light and x-rays. It comprises about 10% of sunlight, of which about half is absorbed by the atmosphere before it reaches the earth. During its travel to the sea level, part of it converts oxygen to ozone, so that a deficiency of ozone is unlikely. The Antarctic hole in the stratosphere occurs as a result of the long Antarctic winter, when little sunlight reaches that area, and usually disappears in November, early spring there.

Ultra-violet light has important biological effects. In crops, it stimulates growth, discourages the spread of fungi such as coffee rust, and increases yield. More important to humans is its ability to create Vitamin D in the skin, preventing rickets in growing children with vitamin deficiency. Less well understood is its ability to promote healing of wounds in both plants and animals.

Most ecologists attribute the cause of depletion of the ozone layer to extensive use of Freon (r) type compounds used in aerosol containers, air conditioners, refrigerators, and the like. There is evidence that they react with ozone in the upper atmosphere to regenerate oxygen; but they do not deplete the ozone, as ozone is regenerated by sunlight at about an equal rate as it is destroyed. Analysis over the past quarter century exhibit mainly cyclical changes in ozone content. Many other chemicals released to the atmosphere, in greater quantities and for longer periods, react equally efficiently to degrade ozone. These include dry clearing solvents, paint thinners, industrial degreasing agents and many others. Environmentalists have selected a relatively minor villain to launch an international, multi-million dollar program to reduce the use of these supposedly harmful compounds.

Any increase in ultraviolet radiation, if it should occur, would contribute more benefits than harm to crops, in my opinion. Humans, now, need have no fear of such increase. Years ago, when agriculture was the leading industry, farmers and other physical laborers working long hours in the sunlight, were highly susceptible to excess radiation and skin cancer was an occupational hazard. Today, this work is accomplished with tractors, combines, and other mechanical equipment, necessitating a small fraction of previous outdoor exposure. Glass and plastic filter out ultraviolet light so there is no problem indoors; and sun glasses protect our eyes, aiding in the prevention of cataracts.

EPA prediction of 40 million cases of skin cancer, which could include any milk skin rash or dermatitis, may occur but not necessarily as a result of outdoor exposure. EPA prediction of 800,000 fatalities from skin cancer is, I believe, completely unrealistic, as there is little doubt that long before 88 years elapse, both prevention and cure of the affliction will have been accomplished.

Scientists, who first plugged in the original computer model for ozone in the atmosphere, forgot to notify the equipment that ozone does not filter out ultra-violet light, but is more a measure of the quantity that is removed from sun light. It is oxygen that serves as a filter when it is converted by the energy of ultra violet light to ozone. Ozone cannot absorb additional energy and is essentially inert to ultra violet radiation. In many respects, ozone is more harmful than ultra violet, being toxic to both plants and animals. We have developed safeguards against these rays, and through intelligent and controlled exposure, we can obtain all the benefits and avoid unfavorable side effects of ultra violet.

Through the efforts of dedicated ecologists, we have accomplished much in cleaning up our environment. A lot more remains to be done. We must become more realistic and question the merits of the more far-out proposals.
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Title Annotation:Coffee Break with Dr. Samuel Lee
Author:Lee, Samuel
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay set plans to be linked together in Mercosur.
Next Article:A coffee map of Italy.

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