March 1992 (vol. 8, #3)
1601 N Tucson Blvd #9, Tucson AZ 85716 c 1992
Physicians for Civil Defense
Once the subject of a grade B science-fiction movie, the Blob has reappeared on the news wires and in science journals. This ``Menace of Mass Destruction'' arose from our cherished appliances [refrigerators and air conditioners], just as the ``threat of nuclear annihilation seems to be fading'' (Arizona Republic 2/11/92).
The Blob is made of ``ozone-eating chemicals, principally chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs [e.g. freon],'' which have been ``found guilty of gnawing a hole in the ozone layer'' (Science 255:797-798, 1992). This winter, ``the blob of high chlorine monoxide slipped off the pole for several weeks in January and hung over northern Europe from London to Moscow'' (ibid., p. 798). Summertime levels of 0.025 parts per billion (ppb) had quadrupled to ``alarming'' levels of 0.100 ppb by December. An all-time high of 1.5 ppb was recorded in January.
According to a NASA prediction,
the Blob could eat between 30 to 40% of the ozone over Canada
this spring. (The natural variability of ozone thickness with
season and latitude is about 25%.) If it does, dire effects are
``Ultraviolet on the Increase''
``It is almost a truism: a loss of stratospheric ozone means there will be more harmful ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) at the Earth's surface,'' announced Paul Crutzen under this headline (Nature 356:104-105, 1992). Friends of the Earth predicted that even one year of continued CFC production could produce hundreds of thousands of skin cancer cases and 10,000 additional deaths in the US alone. A UN report speculated that ozone depletion would speed the progression of AIDS by an as-yet-unknown mechanism, ``although ultraviolet rays would not necessarily increase the rate of infection'' (AP).
Warning people about the predicted ozone depletion, the Canadian environment minister urged people not to panic, but to keep their children out of the sun and to wear sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen, even on balmy spring days when the temperature reaches -3 C.
Contradicting his own headline, Crutzen observes that less ozone does not necessarily mean more UV-B. Sulfate particles, tropospheric ozone due to air pollution, and even cloudiness tend to decrease ultraviolet levels. Crutzen reports on a theoretical method of calculating UV-B levels. The maximum increase in dose in the Antarctic spring is estimated to be only 7% of the total typically received at the Equator.
Crutzen concludes that we need
a worldwide network of UV-B monitoring stations so that we can
substitute measurements for calculations. (Actually, measurements
were made between 1974 and 1986, but were discontinued due to
cost. They showed decreasing penetration by ultraviolet radiation,
according to Dixy Lee Ray in Trashing the Planet.)
Is Ozone on the Decrease?
The ozone decrease is a prediction of a computer model involving complex photochemistry and atmospheric dynamics, including stratospheric clouds that form only under special conditions in the Antarctic cold (Sci Amer, June, 1991). The nuclear winter hypothesis was also based on a computer model. Carl Sagan's prediction from that model a global climatic catastrophe caused by oil fires in Kuwait was recently tested.
To test the ozone model, we
need satellite measurements of stratospheric ozone, which have
become available only recently: the jagged line in the figure
below. Obviously, the ozone levels fluctutate wildly. To use
these data to ``show'' an ozone depletion justifying Draconian
controls on CFCs, the EPA drew the dotted line. However, the
authors of the report identified a rising trend in ozone after
the time of the solar minimum in 1986 (the solid lines in the
figure were drawn by Petr Beckmann). Since ozone is formed through
photochemical reactions, it is reasonable to expect that levels
should correlate with solar activity; however, data are available
for only one solar cycle.
Satellite measurements of ozone
levels, reprinted from Access to Energy, July 1991.
Banning the Blob
An international accord called the Montreal Protocol bans CFCs by the year 2000. Based on alarming forecasts (which were not submitted to peer review) and a presumption of CFC guilt, European environment ministers hastened to announce earlier bans. President Bush ordered the end of US production by 1995.
How will the ban affect the atmosphere? We don't know. Even if chlorine atoms lead to ozone depletion, the relative contributions of Mt. Pinatubo and CFCs are not known because radioactive tracer studies have not been done. Michael Kurylo of NASA thinks that an early CFC phaseout will reduce stratospheric chlorine by a few tenths of a ppb from a predicted high of 4.1 ppb (Science, op. cit.).
There is no time to wait for data. The Blob might be ready to engulf us. Science can't prove that it isn't.
Two plausible consequences might result from the occurrence of a dreaded ozone ``hole'': a detrimental effect on certain plants and an increase in skin cancer. Both presume an increased penetration of ultraviolet radiation.
The seasonal thinning of the ozone in the Antarctic has a measurable effect on the productivity of phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Against a presumed natural back-ground varia-bility of ± 25%, a recent study showed an estimated 2 to 4% loss attributable to ozone thinning. The authors con-cluded that the ecological sig-nificance of their observa-tions ``remains to be determined'' (Science 255:952-959, 1992).
It is a truism that palefaced people need to beware of sun exposure, whether or not the ``earth's umbrella'' of ozone becomes somewhat more leaky than it already is. Those who lack melanin pigment in their skin are susceptible to ultravio-let-induced skin cancers. Most sun-induced skin cancers are readily curable, but they are hardly desirable.
How much are Ameri-cans willing to pay to avert an increased risk of skin cancer? How many skin cancers are they willing to endure for the sake of having air conditioning or a home refrigerator? How much should the Third World be required to pay in terms of foregone economic development to reduce the risk of skin cancer for palefaced Americans? And how much of a decrease in the yield of certain crops is a tolerable cost of refrigeration, without which 40% of the world's food would spoil?
The wire services, the AAAS, and environmental activists do not ask these questions. They simply assert that substitutes for CFCs can be found.
CFCs are widely used because they are stable, nonflam-mable, nontoxic, noncorrosive, and relatively inexpensive. They are excellent for fire extinguishers and insulation. Most importantly, they are found in 610 million refrigerators and freezers, 120 million cold storage units, 100 million refrigerated transports, and 150 million auto air conditioners. Replacing just the refrigerated food trans-portation vehicles would cost about $150 billion. The equip-ment would have to be scrapped; the compressors are designed to be used only with a certain type of freon.
Freon substitutes are under develop-ment but not in widespread production. They will be under patent (the patent on freon has expired), and the cheapest is about 30 times more costly than the freon-12 that it replaces. The substitutes are flammable and possibly carcinogenic. In addition, they are suspected of being greenhouse gases (Nature 344:513-516, 1990). The same political activists who are pressing for the ban on CFCs want halocar-bons (HCFCs) to be banned by the year 2000 to prevent global warming.
Many American women are unwilling or unable to pay $85 for a mammogram to detect early breast cancer, a fatal disease. America is allegedly unable to afford $300 per person to construct shelters against known weapons of mass destruction. How will America pay for the ban on CFCs, which might cost $800 per person per year?
Americans are likely to pay only if forced to do so. That is probably the reason for the heavy penalties on the illegal use of freon, for example, a $25,000 fine and five years imprison-ment for transporting a refilled cylinder.
Will the Third World voluntarily forego its economic aspirations in the name of protecting the ozone? Can the United Nations force Libya and Iraq to adhere to the Montreal Protocol when they produce tons of nerve gas in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention?
Perhaps it can. After all, nerve gas is produced clandestine-ly, and a few drops is sufficient to perform the function of killing a human being. Freon benefits people only if they can obtain it and use it openly, and it takes about 2.5 pounds to charge an automobile air conditioner or 0.5 pounds to charge a refrigerator.
America is rushing to protect the ozone shield against a hypotheti-cal threat at a real and staggering cost.
What will America do to shield its citizens from known threats at a much lower cost?
Now that the Cold War's ``long drawn-out dread is over,'' as President Bush put it in his State of the Union message, Lockheed is commercializing its defense technologies. Instead of building Stealth fighters and Trident missiles, the company's exper-tise is utilized in managing Los Angeles parking ticket collections; helping to sort mail; doing ``environ-mental clean-up'' work; and perform-ing other socially useful functions from head-quarters that look like an aerospace lab. Artificial intelligence software designed for use in antimissile defense helps officials keep current with rapidly changing child-support regulations. Lockheed is also engaged in a joint venture whose mission is to help dismantle the nuclear warheads of the U.S. and former Soviet Union.
The US will probably lead the world in parking-ticket technology. Annual revenue has already quintupled (Wall St J 2/10/92).
The Federal Reserve is prepared for that sort of change. In case of a sudden upheaval in Russia, a bunker stands ready to protect the policymakers, including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and the bank's computer tapes.
As operating manager Julius Malinowski stated, ``There has to be a plan for how to keep the economy running and a place to keep people safe. We are that place.''
The 140,000-square-foot shelter will keep 550 people safe so that they can reconstruct the US economy after a nuclear disaster. They have enough stored food for at least 30 days (Tucson Citizen 2/28/92).