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II. Ozone Depletion

For over 50 years, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were thought of as miracle substances. They are stable, nonflammable, low in toxicity, and inexpensive to produce. Over time, CFCs found uses as refrigerants, solvents, foam blowing agents, and in other smaller applications. Other chlorine-containing compounds include methyl chloroform, a solvent, and carbon tetrachloride, an industrial chemical. Halons, extremely effective fire extinguishing agents, and methyl bromide, an effective produce and soil fumigant, contain bromine. All of these compounds have atmospheric lifetimes long enough to allow them to be transported by winds into the stratosphere. Because they release chlorine or bromine when they break down, they damage the protective ozone layer.

In the early 1970s, researchers began to investigate the effects of various chemicals on the ozone layer, particularly CFCs, which contain chlorine. They also examined the potential impacts of other chlorine sources. Chlorine from swimming pools, industrial plants, sea salt, and volcanoes does not reach the stratosphere. Chlorine compounds from these sources readily combine with water and repeated measurements show that they rain out of the troposphere very quickly. In contrast, CFCs are very stable and do not dissolve in rain. Thus, there are no natural processes that remove the CFCs from the lower atmosphere. Over time, winds drive the CFCs into the stratosphere.

The CFCs are so stable that only exposure to strong UV radiation breaks them down. When that happens, the CFC molecule releases atomic chlorine. One chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules. The net effect is to destroy ozone faster than it is naturally created.

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I. The Ozone LayerAll About OzoneIII. Ozone FAQ