Chlorofluorocarbons are manmade chemical compounds composed of three types of atoms: chlorine, carbon, and fluorine. These compounds were in household products and as a fire retardant for decades, and are believed to have caused serious damage. In addition to potentially causing illness due to exposure, chlorofluorocarbons have been banned throughout much of the world for their devastating effect on the ozone layer of the Earth.
In the 1890s, a Belgian chemist was able to produce chlorofluorocarbons, also called CFCs, in a laboratory. It was not until the 1920s, however, that their use became widespread through the efforts of inventor Thomas Midgely. Midgely had already achieved considerable fame for the invention of leaded gasoline, despite the profusion of workers contracting deadly lead poisoning during production. First used to replace the dangerous gases that were used in refrigeration systems, CFCs were quickly adapted for use in air conditioners, aerosol cans, military aircraft, and hundreds of other products.
Some experts consider chlorofluorocarbons to be one of the most deadly greenhouse gases ever invented. According to some estimates, a single chlorofluorocarbon compound can destroy 100,000 particles of ozone, allowing dangerous ultraviolet rays to filter through to the Earth's surface. Additionally, chlorofluorocarbons absorb massive amounts of heat, which is then reflected back to the planet. On top of both these destructive functions, CFCs can also survive in the atmosphere for at least a century, meaning that they may continue to cause atmospheric damage for over a hundred years after bans take effect.
Not until the 1970s, with 40 years of widespread use under the world's belt, did science connect CFC use to ozone depletion. Even in the 1980s, some environmental conferences on the ozone ignored the majority of the damage caused by these hardworking compounds. Yet in 1987 at the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the evidence of CFC damage could no longer be ignored. The protocol, which has since been revised several times, called for the gradual phasing out of CFCs in new products.
As of 2009, nearly all United Nations members have ratified the agreements of the Montreal Protocol, and some have enacted additional legislation to eliminate the production and use of CFCs, such as the United States Clean Air Act of 1990. However, the damage to the ozone layer is extensive and may take decades, if not centuries, to reverse. In addition, some products, such as certain asthma inhalers are still produced using CFC aerosol technology. Older cars and air conditioning systems also continue to emit dangerous CFC molecules into the atmosphere each day.
According to some experts, CFCs rank among the worst scientific inventions in history. In addition to making some people ill on exposure, these tiny molecules have done a spectacular job of increasing global warming, creating the ozone holes, and generally making the planet less habitable. For people with older model cars, appliances, or refrigeration systems, consider checking with the manufacturer to see if CFCs are used in the products. If so, it may be a very good time to buy a brand-new, environmentally safe air conditioner.