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Ozone controversy lifts off in Congress.

Alan Miller, an environmental lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute, might almost have been talking about an impending war: "It's really just an opening skirmish," he said, "in something that's not controversial yet, but that's really going to blow up later." He was referring to the Senate's anticipated ratification of the Vienna Convention, a formal international agreement orchestrated over the past year by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The agreement, negotiated among 50 countries, calls for international cooperation in studying activities taht adversely affect the earth's stratospheric ozone layer.

the underlying issues involve the setting of internationally agreed-upon limits on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) -- trace gases released into the atmosphere. In the United States CFCs were previously used as aerosol spray propellants and continue to be used as foam-blowing agents and refrigeration system additives. Although worldwide CFC production has been reduced by 21 percent since 1974, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Chemical Manufacturers' Association, worldwide aerosol and nonaerosol uses of CFCs increased by 7 percent from 1982 to 1983.

In the stratosphere, sunlight breaks down CFCs into chlorine atoms, which catalyze a series of reactions that ultimately destroys ozone. A group of countries, including the United States, Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden, has already reduced CFC emissions, and has advocated that all European countries, the Soviet Union and Japan cut back on nonessential uses of aerosols. A counter-proposal from the Common Market countries would essentially limit the opening of new CFC-manufacturing facilities. The controversy may yet pit the United States government, which is spending $25 million annually to study the problem, against the Common Market countries as well as against U.S. CFC manufacturers, who claim that the risk posed by CFCs has not been demonstrated. "The government's going to get caught in the middle of the most divisive environmental issue I've ever seen," says Miller.

Bob Watson, an atmospheric chemist with NASA's Earth Sciences Division in Washington, D.C., says scientists are only starting to understand the set of chemical processes that both produce and destroy atmospheric ozone. "I feel sorry for policy makers," says Watson, who acted as technical adviser to the U.S. State Department representatives to Vienna, "because they have to try to make international policy just as predictions about damage to the ozone layer are chaning substantially -- every time there's been an assessment report, the numbers change."

Watson says NASA's latest estimates show that a 5 to 7 percent reduction of ozone may occur by the year 2050. But in the last 10 years, he says, scientific calculations have ranged from 3 percent to 18 percent (SN: 4/12/82, p. 244). The calculations continue to get more complex, he says, because they have to incorporate all the interactions of CFCs as well as of a variety of other gases -- including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and methane.
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Author:Mathewson, Judith
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 14, 1985
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