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  • Writer's pictureDoug Neckers

Chlorofluorocarbons and the Climate

The Biden administration finalized its first new climate rule on September 23, slashing the use of powerful greenhouse gases widely used in home refrigerators and air conditioners and often found to be leaking from U.S. supermarket freezers. The regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency establishes a program to cut the use and production of chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons by 85 percent over the next 15 years.

Washington Post, Sept. 23, 2021

That’s how the Washington Post described a long-anticipated ruling to slash the use of common synthetic compounds based on carbon and fluorine subgroups. Though they are almost totally resistant to oxidation and burning and are very good at transferring heat, they are a threat to the environment, and have been a major contributor to global warming, as were chlorofluoromethanes before them.

Now, at last, the federal government is ending the use of these compounds that as much as any others are responsible for global warming. Grocery stores refrigerators will have to have their coolants replaced within two years, and they will no longer be allowed; chlorofluorocarbons will be banned for such uses then.

This will have a positive effect on the environment – and a researcher with roots in Ohio played a factor. Few remember now, but back in June, 1974 Mario Molina and F. Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist at the University of California-Irvine, published an inconspicuous paper in Nature, a prestigious scientific journal.

Sherry Rowland summed this up in his usual understated and hard-hitting way. “Chlorofluoromethanes are being added to the environment in steadily increasing amounts. These compounds are chemically inert and may remain in the atmosphere for 40 to 150 years, and concentrations can be expected to reach 10 to 30 times present levels.” That, he added, “produces significant amounts of chlorine atoms, and leads to the destruction of atmospheric ozone” in the stratosphere. Michael Woods, The Toledo Blade’s longtime, award-winning science writer and editor, was the first journalist to discover the paper, and wrote about it in The Blade. Private industry wasn’t pleased by this, and over the few years, Mr. Rowland found himself in a huge fight with the manufacturer of chlorofluoromethanes in the United States -- E. I. DuPont de Nemours.

DuPont countered with their best scientists to argue that Mr. Rowland was wrong and even sent hatchet men to press conferences in which he made his case.

But the scientist, a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, would not be deterred. Eventually during a meeting of environmental and atmospheric scientists in Montreal in 1987, action was taken to advise banning chlorofluoromethanes. That was done, and other chlorofluorocarbons became the replacement, which now have been banned by President Biden.

Ironically, the senators pushing the current ban are Tom Carper from Delaware, an old colleague of the President’s, and John Kennedy from Louisiana, a conservative Republican but one who is fully aware that his state has been hard hit by the effects of global warming.

Sadly, Sherry Rowland didn’t live to see this day. He died of complications of Parkinson’s disease in 2012. But his work was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995. He told me when I was nominating George Hammond, another chemist with Ohio connections for a Nobel Prize, that before the Nobel Foundation met to vote on his award, he was invited to give several lectures in Sweden for the members of the Royal Society to see if his work was ‘really chemistry.’

Fortunately, they decided that it was. Scientists can sometimes be provincial and much the same sort of thing has been going on with Robert Langer at MIT, one of the inventors of the mRNA vaccine technology.

Sherry Rowland never lived to see it, but his work will have a lasting impact for the better on our world. He was a good friend of mine. He was a faculty member at the University of Kansas when I was a student. Later he visited Bowling Green University at the invitation of Dick Edwards, a staff member who later became the city’s mayor. Blade Science Writer Mike Woods came to a breakfast meeting, an and after he left, Professor Rowland raved about his scientific insights.

“I work in the shadow of the Los Angeles Times, and the most important work of my career is ignored by them. Thank goodness for Michael Woods, and Toledo. They helped it (his work on chlorofluorocarbons) be discovered.”

'It took almost half a century, but they have now been banned. Somewhere, I hope Sherry Rowland is smiling.

Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, a distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Follow him at Photo by Enrico Mantegazza on Unsplash

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