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Spray Away Layers of Ugly Ozone Fast, Fast, Fast!

The environmental effects of everyday items

Smog, smoke, San Gabriel Mountains, Claremont

Smog and smoke choke the San Gabriel Mountains above this city creating unique patterns along the ridges in Claremont, California, in 1975.

George Rose/Getty Images/Getty

Have you heard the one about the moon?
You haven’t?
Well, forget it. It’d probably be over your head, anyway.
—Vaudeville joke

The bang-or-whimper sweepstakes—that ongoing scientific quest for the latest face of doomsday—has taken some odd turns since the beginning of this decade, when the twin threats of overpopulation and large-scale eco-disaster dominated the field. But dying oceans and mass starvation no longer really seem to grab the spotlight and the final loss of that vision’s popular potency may well have been marked by Alvin Toffler’s recent Eco-Spasm—a brief, readable and thoroughly pessimistic scenario that would have been required reading on every campus in the country a few years ago, but which raised hardly even a shiver this time around.

The last 18 months, however, have also seen what may be the premier techno-threat of the Seventies—a menace that has ascended almost effortlessly to the first order of the apocalypse. It is known technically as ozone depletion—a theory first advanced in June of last year by two California researchers, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, who asked a fairly simple question: What happens to all the fluoro-carbon gas produced worldwide each year—and used almost exclusively in refrigerators and as the propellant in aerosol spray cans?

The answer—that the millions of pounds of inert gas involved may be destroying ozone in the upper atmosphere—could be the perfect doom scenario: The mechanism is invisible and totally unforeseen; every American contributes personally to the problem daily; the ozone that we’re trying to save is in fact an exceedingly acrid-smelling gas which in sufficient quantities can kill us; and one readout of the situation may well be cancer.

The fluorocarbons in question, first developed in 1928 in the search for a nontoxic refrigerant, by now fill not only refrigeration units, but somewhere in the vicinity of one billion spray cans a year. Until recently, these gases earned a relatively clean bill of health: They appeared to be so inert that they did virtually nothing at all, either to earth or to consumer. They simply, it seemed, went away. As with most innovative scientific thinking, it now seems rather remarkable that no one until very recently much wondered where they went.

They went, it develops, up, and in going up—according to Rowland and Molina’s theory—the gases ultimately encounter, in the upper atmosphere, solar radiation so powerful that the fluorocarbon molecules no longer remain passive and inert.

They instead release chlorine atoms—which, besides being generally unpleasant, seem to act to destroy the neighboring ozone molecules. And that ozone apparently protects us from some nasty wavelengths of ultraviolet light, which, if less filtered, could well wreak various climatic and environmental havoc down here at sea level—including a projected rise in the incidence of skin cancer.

Bizarre, to say the least. It was probably best characterized earlier this year by Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist Tony Auth, who depicted an extraterrestrial visitor, hovering in a twin-finned saucer high over planet earth and observing to his companion that “Something must be wrong . . . my readings indicate that they’ve decided to destroy their ozone shield with deodorant sprays. . .” And to add an Edgar Allen Poe touch to the whole situation, evidence indicates that much of the aerosol propellant released over the past decade probably hasn’t even reached the level of the ozone layer. Yet.

Almost immediately, government investigation into the fluorocarbon threat began. Hearings have been held in both congressional houses and a National Academy of Sciences report, due next spring, will probably fairly well decide the question. Barring some completely unforeseen turn in the research, fluorocarbons — at least those used in aerosol cans — will almost certainly be regulated within the next few years. While questions remain about the numerical accuracy of the ozone depletion model, the basic premise appears fairly unimpeachable. Even at E. I. Du Pont—the largest producer of fluorocarbons on the planet — one research director has called the Rowland-Molina hypothesis “a stroke of genius.”

By now, just about the only aspect of the controversy that remains unexplored is social: What happens when the premier apocalypse model of the decade collides dead on with a $500-million-a-year fluorocarbon industry?

The answer is paper: Lots of paper, along with mimeograph fluid, postage, telephone bills and PR-firm profit profiles. After looking at the mass of flacksterism that the issue has accrued, one can only conclude that of all the alleyways of public relations, selling science door-to-door may well be the most trying.

Take, for example, the efforts of Du Pont—the firm that in the United States produces more than 500 million pounds of the suspect substances a year and whose trademark, “Freon,” has been appropriated by the press, à la “Kleenex,” as the catch phrase for an entire industry. Du Pont, moreover, fields an annual corporate advertising budget approaching $30 million.

Du Pont has chosen to tackle the question head-on. Early last summer, a full-page ad appeared in a series of publications, beginning with Editor and Publisher, running through the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, to the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. (Corpus Christi, Texas, is the site of what was to be Du Pont’s—and thus the world’s—largest fluorocarbon production plant.) The ad was headlined, “The Ozone Layer vs. the Aerosol Industry. Du Pont Wants to See Them Both Survive,” thus at once both establishing and undercutting the adversary relationship that Du Pont spokes-people do their best to disavow.

Since June, Du Pont has averaged about two major press releases per month on the issue, generally designed to either “dispute” or “clarify” what those releases have referred to as “doomsday publicity.” The Du Pont press has repeatedly emphasized both their corporate pledge to halt fluorocarbon production, should the threat be verified, and their contribution to the $5 million industry research effort aimed at determining the threat’s veracity.

In the course of those releases, as well, the number of people employed by the threatened fluorocarbon industry has increased from 200,000 to 1,100,000 (“They must,” comments one observer, “be down to counting air conditioner repairmen by now”); the “over-estimation” of ozone depletion has ranged from 75% to 300%; and one Du Pont researcher has announced that “the worst possible long-term risk [involved in a three-year delay on regulating fluorocarbons] would be less than many of us take in sunbathing every year.” Three years is, coincidentally, the period apparently required for testing alternative aerosol propellants.

In the last month, moreover, numbers one and two of an entire newsletter devoted to the Du Pont side of fluorocarbon/ozone have appeared. And a second full-page ad has run in the Times, Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as an eclectic series of magazines, from Scientific American, Science and Nature through the Washingtonian, Atlantic and Harper’s and winding up in Broadcasting, More, National Review and the New York Review of Books.

Du Pont is shy about revealing the price of their effort. “I don’t have that figure,” said the head of the Du Pont Freon campaign, “and I don’t think we’d tell you anyway. People not working in this area could very easily misinterpret a dollar amount.” Perhaps. On the basis of available information, it would appear that Du Pont spent more on publishing their second full-page ad alone than researchers Rowland and Molina spent on the entire body of research that started the controversy in the first place.

Du Pont’s public relations department reports satisfaction with the effort. “We seem,” says a spokesperson, “to be getting into stories now and to be getting more calls from people from different media asking for information. We think there is a more balanced treatment growing in the press.” By last summer, “it became eminently clear that we could find ourselves carried on a tidal wave into a situation where a decision might be made to regulate that was based on an emotional circumstance, rather than the understanding of information. We felt it imperative to try to introduce a counter balancing viewpoint into the public discussion.”

Another employee in the Du Pont advertising department was even more forthright: “If we’re not careful,” he said, “the bureaucracy can determine what’s good and what’s bad for us, and George Orwell can be the soothsayer of the 20th century.”

“Orwellian,” coincidentally, is how researcher Sherwood Rowland describes the Du Pont efforts to interpret his work. “The most recent Du Pont newspaper ad,” he suggests, “calls my conclusions ‘assumptions.’ And the 300% figure [a standard Du Pont quote for how the ozone depletion was originally overstated] is the most frequent false statement they make. They’ve never even checked back with the source of their statement.” When Du Pont representatives were pressed for the precise meaning of that figure (which appears prominently under the heading “Fact” in their October newspaper ads), it triggered a chain of baffling telephone exchanges wherein the figure was, depending on statistical methods employed, revised to either 50% or 75%, and by the end of which one representative admitted that “we’ve had great arguments around here. X over four, or X over three—you can’t imagine how confusing it got.”

Well, probably not. But Du Pont by no means carries all of the industry’s public relations burden. There is also the Aerosol Education Bureau, run by a large New York public relations firm and representing a whole series of manufacturers also threatened by aerosol cutbacks. (And that threat is already felt; Continental Can reports spray-can shipments down one quarter in the first half of 1975, and there have been recent production cuts at the New York plant of Robert Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray valve.)

The AEB has spent its entire brief lifetime battling threats to aerosol, beginning with teenage aerosol sniffing. The campaign against aerosol sniffing, according to the AEB, featured a promo record cut by Bill Cosby and distributed to college radio stations. Both the threat and the campaign, at this distance, seem rather arcane, and in fact the only historical reference to the effort thus far appears in Edward Brecher’s Licit and Illicit Drugs, in the chapter entitled “How to Launch a Nationwide Drug Menace.”

The AEB has by now turned its attentions to ozone and its most recent production involved a poorly attended New York press conference and an extensive press kit, featuring four-by-five glossies introducing an innocuous-looking gentleman who has been retained by the aerosol industry in order to comment on the ozone depletion theory and who, moreover, sports “credentials at least equal to those of anyone involved in the hypothesis.”

Not everyone in the industry is fighting an action as rearguard as the AEB, however. Early last summer, about the same time as the first Du Pont newspaper ad, Johnson Wax—itself a large producer of aerosol products—ran an ad of its own in about 100 dailies. The layout of that ad was strikingly similar to the Du Pont production, even down to the large signature by the chairman of the board. The message, however, was quite different.

“Effective today,” Johnson announced in italics, “our company has removed all fluorocarbon propellants from our production line in the U.S.”; the concerned customer, thus, can continue to use Johnson’s products with confidence. “Use with Confidence,” in fact, is the phrase that will soon appear on the newly redesigned Johnson’s labels. “Contains no fluorocarbons claimed to harm the ozone layer.”

Other sections of the aerosol industry did not find Johnson’s breast baring quite so selfless. “Less than five percent of their product line in the U.S. used fluorocarbons in the first place,” according to one source. “In England, where more of their line depends on fluorocarbons, they’ve made no such similar announcement.” (True, according to Johnson, although they promise to remove fluorocarbons from their European lines as quickly as possible.) “What they’ve done,” continued the source, “is to try to gain marketing advantage out of a difficult situation. I know damn well that’s what it is.”

“The ad,” according to Johnson’s head of public relations, “brought in the most significant response in our history. About 1500 letters, and I would say that 99.999% were favorable. It’s good,” he observed, “to see that the consumer is concerned.”

Industry is, of course, not the only player in the PR game. The publicity efforts of theorist Rowland, for example, seem unusually vigorous for scientific circles, and Rowland himself is quick to admit that between his speaking tours he regularly spends up to two hours a day on the telephone to media. Rowland is rather media hip for an academic scientist; most institutions find it necessary to provide their researchers with professional publicity staffs. Not surprisingly, overstatement can sometimes slip into those efforts and it is slightly easier to sympathize with Du Pont’s position in the face of a press release like one issued by a New York technical institution where Rowland recently spoke: “Is,” the first sentence inquired ingenuously, “the end of the earth in sight?”

Or take the example of some fluorocarbon research completed recently by two National Bureau of Standards scientists. The National Bureau of Standards had not really even been involved in the whole ozone brouhaha until, in the weeks prior to the annual convention of the American Chemical Society last August, the NBS PR department launched what constitutes, in these realms, a fairly intensive campaign: personal letters to about 20 selected science writers (“Since you have been following this controversial issue…”), along with a detailed five-page press release, a photograph and a copy of the original report.

The research was interesting, as it clarified and supported, on the whole, the Rowland-Molina hypothesis about how fluorocarbons “photodecompose” into the ozone-destroying chlorine, but it was not earthshaking; Rowland counts that work as by now the fourth partial confirmation of his photodecomposition theory. The extent of the publicity thus puzzled many of the convention attendees and apparently thoroughly intimidated the researcher involved, who proceeded to make himself just about invisible during the course of the meeting.

But then one wire service picked up the NBS release and sent it out as representing a major confirmation of the entire Rowland-Molina theory—a conclusion by no means warranted but one which might well have been received from a cursory look at the extent of the NBS press foray.

Du Pont caught the wire service story almost instantly—in time, in fact, to chasten the reporter involved and have a rewritten story serviced the same day. And for good measure, Du Pont then followed up with a press release that not only clarified the situation but which further analyzed the new data as pointing up questions about the original theory.

Du Pont is fairly self-righteous about the whole situation. And the NBS employee who produced the press release is unabashed: “Our researchers,” she admits, “didn’t think it was that big a deal. But, if I did it again, I’d do it the same way. Science writers will be science writers and they’re going to write whatever they want to write, no matter what you give them to start with.”

Regardless of the press tangle, it looks like fluorocarbons will almost inevitably be regulated. Fluorocarbons used in refrigeration systems may be viewed, for the present, more leniently than those used in spray cans, but the refrigeration units represent only about one-half of fluorocarbon usage. And no matter how eloquently the aerosol industry praises spray cans (my favorite press release along those lines describes the introduction of aerosol shaving cream in 1956 and concludes proudly that “America has been shaving safely and conveniently ever since”), the fact remains that it’s really rather silly to run even a slight environmental risk in order to facilitate the retail sale of deodorants. (Ninety-three percent of fluorocarbon aerosol losses to the atmosphere, according to one government study, comes from personal care products.) The industry is already working harder at perfecting alternative, nonobjectionable propellents than they are at defending the existing ones. One educated guess has it that the first introduction of alternative aerosols will be in Europe, where concern over the issue has not yet grown nearly so noisy.

Assuming a sensible denouement, the most disturbing residue of the fluorocarbon/ozone question may be the realization that even an issue that potentially approaches planetary suicide can still be treated as a public relations beach ball. A primary tenet of the PR business is that one should always cover one’s own ass. In cases like this, however, that ultimately means—quite inescapably — everyone’s.

In This Article: Coverwall, Environment

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