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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Problems With Promising CFC Substitute

Air Date: Week of

Mike Villars of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports on the decision of two major companies to stop working with a promising substitute for ozone-depleting CFCs. The companies say their workers could be exposed to unsafe levels of the chemical.


CURWOOD: In response to the ozone problem, more than a hundred countries have agreed to phase out most ozone-eating chemicals by the end of the century, and the US has set a deadline of 1995. But a major glitch may may have arisen in the rush to meet the deadline. Two companies using a substitute for CFC's in commercial coolers have stopped working with the chemical because of health concerns. The problem has some wondering if the phase-out deadline will be met. Mike Villers of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports.

VILLERS: There are some 80 thousand industrial refrigerators in the US. Right now, virtually all of them use chlorofluorocarbons as their coolant. But the government's mandate to phase out the manufacture of CFC's means that soon, all of these refrigerators will have to be replaced, or converted to use a different kind of coolant. This necessity has produced a scramble to find a standard replacement for CFC's, a scramble with a potentially huge payoff. Dave Rasmussen is an analyst for the CFC Report, an industry newsletter.

RASMUSSEN: An average chiller can use anywhere from 100 to 200 pounds up to a thousand or more pounds of this refrigerant. And the potential market for just the refrigerant alone is close to a billion dollars, and it's got to be much more than that for the equipment.

VILLERS: The specific refrigerant Rasmussen has in mind is called HCFC-123, the most promising CFC replacement now on the market. It's basically a chlorofluorocarbon with a hydrogen molecule tacked on, and while it's chemically similar to CFC's, it's far more ozone-friendly. It destroys just 2 to 3 percent as much ozone as CFC's. The DuPont Company has taken the lead in manufacturing HCFC-123, and the Wisconsin-based Trane Corporation has been out front in developing and modifying equipment to use it. About 1500 HCFC-123 machines are already in operation around the country. But this rush to market, which began before safety testing of HCFC-123 was complete, may turn out to have been premature. One of the great benefits of CFC's was that they were generally non-toxic to humans. And they had to be, because the maze of pipes, valves and compressors required to run a refrigerator almost invariably leak. But tests have shown that laboratory rats exposed to the new refrigerant develop benign tumors, and the allowable exposure limit for people working with HCFC-123 is now set 100 times lower than for CFC's. These new safety concerns have given some companies pause about working with the new coolant.

PONZAK: In view of the possible health risks that were demonstrated or that were intimated in these studies, Johnson Controls at this time would decide not to expose its employees to HCFC-123.

VILLERS: Glen Ponzak is a spokesperson for Johnson Controls, one of the largest companies in the country that services industrial refrigerators. Johnson recently joined the Carrier Corporation, a major manufacturer of such equipment, in announcing that it would stop working with HCFC-123 machines. Both companies say that the nature of cooling equipment is such that they could never guarantee their workers wouldn't be exposed to possibly unsafe levels of the chemical. These actions worry companies like Trane and DuPont, who fear that potential customers may be scared away from HCFC-123. Both of those companies defend the safety of the chemical, and they question Johnson and Carrier's motives for withdrawing from the business. Gene Smithhart, a marketing director at Trane, says Johnson got out because it lacked the training and experience to work with the new coolant.

SMITHHART: Of the 1500 centrifugal machines that Johnson has in their service contracts in the US, only between approximately ten to fifteen have HCFC-123.

VILLERS: And the EPA backs up Trane and DuPont on HCFC-123. Reva Rubenstein, a CFC and HCFC specialist at the EPA, says its testing showed the danger to workers from the new coolant to be minimal.

RUBENSTEIN: We found that the level was well below the ten parts per million which is what the recommended level is. And in most cases, it was under one part per million; in fact in most cases we couldn't detect it at all.

VILLERS: But the EPA admits it tested only six sites, and that it cooperated with Trane and DuPont in setting up those tests. Meanwhile, the CFC Report's Dave Rasmussen says DuPont has had its own problems handling the coolant. An environmental manager for DuPont recently told the CFC Report that workers at a company plant in Michigan were exposed to more than twice the allowable levels of the refrigerant. Rasmussen says DuPont's troubles point to the central question regarding HCFC-123 as a primary replacement for CFC's.

RASMUSSEN: If indeed the manufacturer itself is having trouble maintaining these limits even in drumming the stuff, that calls into question how safe it can be used throughout the industry.

VILLERS: How the safety issues concerning HCFC-123 will play out remains uncertain. But if they're not resolved by the end of 1995, they could result in very uncertain economic futures for those companies committed to HCFC-123 technology. And with no other viable alternatives yet on the horizon, even more uncertainty for the fate of the ozone layer. For Living on Earth, I'm Mike Villers.



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