Ozone Controversy

March 19, 1976

Report Outline
Fear of Depleting Atmospheric Ozone
Origins of the Fluorocarbon Debate
Research Needs and Legal Action
Special Focus

Fear of Depleting Atmospheric Ozone

Debate Over Effects of Aerosols and Refrigerants

The ozone controversy burst into public debate in the mid-1970s with confusing and frightening suddenness. Americans were told that their use of aerosol spray cans and air conditioners, among other things, might be endangering the fragile atmospheric ozone layer that protects the earth from solar ultraviolet rays. If the ozone layer were depleted, it was said, the result could be more human skin cancer, damage to plant life, and even global climatic changes. Cries to ban fluorocarbons—the allegedly guilty substances that are used primarily as propellants and refrigerants—were heard throughout the land. And the familiar aerosol spray can was branded as a dangerous weapon that could bring ecological doom.

Before long, however, a catch appeared: it turned out that scientists disagreed as to the seriousness of the hazard. No one really knew how fast the ozone was being depleted, how long it would take before an imminent danger existed, or even if aerosol sprays and other consumer products were indeed the culprits. Findings and conclusions differed, and for every scientist who called for an immediate ban on fluorocarbons there was one who contended that more research was needed before science could be sure. The American public, accustomed to cries of wolf about the environment, shrugged collectively and sat back to await the verdict.

Today, the jury is still out on the ozone controversy. In April, a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences is scheduled to release a comprehensive report on the ozone question, the result of more than a year of study. But the chances are slim that it will resolve the debate completely. For if there is one thing on which the majority of scientists now seem to agree, it is that a final, definitive answer on the relationship of fluorocarbons to the ozone layer is still many years away. Too little is known—about the atmosphere and the climate, about the effects of ultraviolet light on plant and animal life, and about the comparative concentrations of man-made and natural chemicals in the atmosphere—to say for certain what the facts are. It is at least possible that the potential danger is exaggerated and that fluorocarbons will turn out to be relatively harmless when all the evidence is in.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Jan. 26, 2001  Global Warming Treaty
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Oct. 27, 1995  Indoor Air Pollution
Apr. 03, 1992  Ozone Depletion
Mar. 08, 1991  Acid Rain: New Approach to Old Problem
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Oct. 16, 1981  Wood Fuel's Developing Market
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Mar. 19, 1976  Ozone Controversy
Apr. 26, 1967  Air Pollution: Rising Threat
Jan. 08, 1964  Air Contamination
Jan. 14, 1959  Cleaner Air
Apr. 06, 1955  Poisoned Air
Aug. 26, 1949  Air Pollution
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