Why It Took So Long to Find Out About Breast Implants (and Ozone) What Did Science Know? When Did It Know It?

March 08, 1992|By JOHN C. WILLIAMS Jr.

By now everyone has heard that we have a little problem with the ozone layer. It's been in all the papers. Time did a cover story on it. The Bush administration has been forced by the results of this long-term and inadvertent experiment with Earth's atmosphere to make the prudent decision of banning production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after 1995.

Not a moment too soon. Actually, probably twenty years too late.

Could this have been avoided? Should we have known this could, or would, happen? Who was supposed to have told us in time to avoid major catastrophe? Can't the president find a good scientist when he really needs one?

The chemistry of ozone destruction by CFCs is understandable to a second-year college chemistry student. Presidential science advisers, one hopes, posses at least that level of expertise. If they don't, then they can make a phone call and talk to a chemist who does.

What did they know about CFCs, and what could they have told a nervous presidential aide about them, if (when?) a phone call was made? They could have told him of their uses as excellent refrigerants and aerosol propellants (which they certainly are), and, after 1975, they could have told him about the chemistry of ozone destruction.

It was in 1975 that experimental reports were published concluding that "removal of odd oxygen [ozone] is becoming an increasingly serious global environmental problem," and "The accumulation of [CFC] in the earth's atmosphere presents a hazard to stratospheric ozone. . . ." A 1978 follow-up article concluded: "calculated atmospheric residence times [for CFCs] range from 40 to 550 years" and, finally, in a stunning understatement: "Calculated atmospheric residence times as long as 500 years pose a special problem in consideration of environmental hazards, and legislation for control of such hazards." A special problem.

Let us pose a hypothetical case. Just suppose that a research chemist in the major CFC-producing company came across these early reports, read them, checked and rechecked the calculations, then concluded that his company was promulgating an environmental disaster unprecedented in human history. Suppose he sent a memo up through the corporate hierarchy outlining these reports and the dire consequences. And what if a) he was told to forget it, or b) a research group was formed within the company to replicate the experiments and they were found to be valid (which they are) but no action was taken.

We know what did not happen. Option "c" did not happen; wherein the company shuts down production of CFCs, notifies the country and the world, then turns its whole research force toward finding a way to limit or undo the damage.

But what should the company chemist do in the face of option a and b? Remember, this is about an environmental disaster unprecedented in human history. Should he quit and go public? Should he become such a nuisance about the subject that he gets fired?

Then he becomes a "special problem." He is a whistle blower. A whistle makes a shrill and annoying sound. We don't like to hear it. A whistle blower invites ridicule, ostracism, and financial loss to tell us things we need to know. And no child ever told a parent that he wants to grow up to be a "whistle blower."

Why were the academic scientists who did the work in the 1970s not more insistent about their findings? They did what research scientists are supposed to do: had an idea, designed and completed the experiments and published the results. They didn't keep anything secret. What more do we want of them?

Any government agency, presidential commission or White House aide who wanted to know about the potential hazards of CFCs could read about it, and, if necessary, have the scientists themselves explain the details.

Corporate science and government policy makers have had access to this information for almost two decades. Nothing was done, even when the problem ceased to be theoretical in 1985, with discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. And as recently as last year, the U.S. representative to the world-wide talks to limit and phase out CFC production was an almost passive observer of the proceedings, bringing no sense of urgency to the conference. Why this willful ignorance of a problem of such magnitude?

There are precedents.

The latent effects of asbestos exposure were denied for years by Johns-Manville, the company that marketed it. The company, now in bankruptcy, and its insurers, have paid out millions in damages to the victims. The federal government now oversees removal of asbestos from school buildings and mandates air quality standards in buildings that contain asbestos insulation.

The tobacco industry still claims that cigarettes do not cause cancer or cardiovascular disease. Since 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States has been on record regarding the health hazards of cigarette smoking. But an agency of the U.S. government, the Department of Agriculture, continues to subsidize tobacco farming.

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