The ozone layer vs. Washington

Tom Wicker

April 11, 1991|By Tom Wicker

THE NEWS WAS very bad -- not so heart-rending as the plight of the Kurdish refugees but more deadly for the future: The ozone layer, at the latitude of the United States, is disappearing more than twice as swiftly as scientists had thought.

That's no concern of yours?

It is if you're young enough to be living, or have children living, within the next 50 years. The new calculations mean that in the coming half-century, about 12 million Americans will contract skin cancer and probably 200,000 will die -- nearly 20 times as many as formerly predicted.

Before the new findings, only a half-million additional cases of skin cancer and just over 9,000 deaths were expected from ozone depletion. Currently, there are only about 8,000 deaths a year from skin cancer.

But even with such rapidly worsening odds, what's the ozone layer got to do with you?

Plenty, if you're one of the tens of millions of Americans with a refrigerator or an air-conditioner in your house, or an air-conditioner in your car. In most of these machines, chlorofluorocarbons -- CFCs, for short -- are the heat-transfer agent that provides the cooling effect.

Unfortunately, they're also the most prominent of the chemicals that, as they escape into the atmosphere, eat away at the ozone layer. It's the ozone layer that protects the earth and its inhabitants from too much of the sun's ultraviolet light, a prime cause of skin cancer.

The less ozone, the more ultraviolet, at a rate of about 2 percent more ultraviolet for every 1 percent loss of ozone. Ample evidence suggests that means more skin cancer, more eye cataracts, more damage to the human immune system and to crops, plants and the oceanic food chain.

The new measurements, recorded over a period of 11 years by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, allow for changes caused by the solar cycle. They still identified an ozone loss of about 4.5 percent over the U.S. in the last decade; previous, less reliable findings had suggested no more than a 2 percent loss from 1969 to 1986.

Even on the earlier, less alarming data, most of the world had committed itself to phasing out CFCs. In 1987, 57 nations meeting in Montreal adopted a treaty calling for a 50 percent cut in production of CFCs and other ozone-attacking chemicals.

Last June, in London, most governments agreed that by the end of this century in developed countries, and by 2010 elsewhere, CFC production would be halted entirely.

Even the United States, which has not taken a strong lead against international environmental threats, was ready to move by the time of the London conference.

President Bush, on the advice of his chief of staff, John Sununu, had been refusing to contribute a previously pledged $25 million to a fund to help poor countries substitute "ozone friendly" -- but more expensive -- chemicals for CFCs. Last year Bush overruled Sununu and put up the $25 million.

But that was last year, and the new NASA measurements call all former assumptions into doubt. "In the next couple of decades, the level of ozone depletion could border on the disastrous," in the opinion of Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The bad news, he said, "underscores the need to avoid taking risks with global life support systems like the ozone layer and also like the world's climate."

In fact, the "stunning" new information, said William K. Reilly, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, means steps already taken to protect the ozone layer "may well turn out to be inadequate."

He may have a hard time convincing the Bush administration, which responded to the drastically increased rate of ozone depletion with its accustomed ho-hum -- this time from Michael Deland, the chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality:

"I think that before we undertake a major overhaul of U.S. or worldwide policies, we need to very carefully scrutinize this and other reports to evaluate the accuracy in a deliberative and comprehensive scientific way."

How's that for gobbledygook? But what else would you expect from an administration that thinks it need do nothing but study global warming, while carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase?

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