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How CFCs Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer

by Seth Cagin, Philip Dray

Pub Date: May 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-42052-5
Publisher: Pantheon

 Shifting from civil-rights history (We Are Not Afraid, 1988) to an especially tragic path of 20th-century progress, Cagin and Dray offer a well-written, devastatingly detailed chronicle of the widespread use of CFCs over more than 60 years. First synthesized in 1928 in the Ohio laboratory of Thomas Midgley, Jr., an eccentric but inspired researcher for General Motors, chlorofluorocarbons were created to provide a nontoxic alternative to the household refrigerators then available. Midgley's boss, Charles Kettering, quickly realized the great potential of such a supposedly benign coolant and encouraged the application of CFCs in the fledgling air-conditioning industry- -thereby prompting a revolution in the American way of life through the emergence of climate-controlled home and office environments. Other uses for the wonder chemical followed: CFCs gave rise to the entire aerosol industry when first employed as a more user-friendly means of dispensing insecticides, and they became an active ingredient in the manufacture of Styrofoam as well. But not until 1974, when research by two University of California scientists showed the likelihood of heavy damage to the world's ozone layer by CFCs, did the price of ``better living through chemistry'' become apparent. Mounting pressure to stop production of the chemicals met with stiff resistance from DuPont and other manufacturers, and any progress toward regulation was hampered by a turbulent political climate--until irrefutable evidence in the mid-80's of growing holes in the ozone over the Antarctic forced the CFC industry to capitulate. At once fascinating and horrifying: a timely study of one scientific advance that proved to be a decidedly mixed blessing. (Eight pages of b&w photographs--not seen)