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Higher prices expected from ozone concern

President Bush's plan to get rid of ozone-depleting chemicals faster will push up prices for everything from food to air conditioners, businesses say.

Bush announced last week that production of chlorofluorocarbons(CFCs) will be eliminated by Dec. 31, 1995, four years earlier than required under international treaty.

CFCs are widely used in refrigeration, cleaning solvents, packaging and insulation. They are widely blamed for depleting the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere, which screens the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Other chemicals that will be banned are halons, methyl chloroform and carbon tetrachloride.

Industry spokesmen said they were not surprised by the decision to move up the date, given continual concern over global warming and the eating away of the ozone. Many businesses that use CFCs already had plans to phase them out by 1995.

The unknown is how manufacturers will cope with getting air conditioning systems ready in time without spending billions to swap existing systems for new ones.

An interim replacement for CFCs could be hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs. These chemicals also have the potential to deplete the ozone, but far less so than CFCs and aren't to be eliminated until 2030.

"It's obvious there will need to be a carryover compound for a while," said General Motors Corp. spokesman John V. Dinan.

The cost to industry already has run in the billions and some of that is being passed to the consumer. It's already reflected in the price of new cars that have CFC-free air conditioners. Eventually, it could be seen in a head of lettuce, kept cool in a grocer's produce case.

"This is happening a year earlier than we were targeting," said Carol Sizer, a spokeswoman for Whirlpool Corp. Refrigerators are a major product for Whirlpool, and converting refrigerating systems and insulation already has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sizer said the appliance industry has asked for a 15-year "lock-in" agreement from the government "so we're not asked to do this again in two years."

Dow Chemical Co., which has been steadily reducing its use of CFCs in plastic products since 1988, is stuck over what to do for a substitute for its Trymer rigid polyurethane film, spokeswoman Denise La Croix said.

"We're waiting for the completion of toxicity data and safety testing to make sure we find a safe and effective alternative," she said. "We'll continue research efforts. We have some time to work with."

The government's decision could be good news for Du Pont, which first commercialized CFCs in alliance with GM in 1931.

Du Pont unveiled its CFC alternative, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, in January 1991, but it is selling slowly, said Sharon Gidumal, a Du Pont environmental specialist.

"Companies are very worried about warranties," she said. "They're not satisfied and they want to do more testing. We're having to slow down production because we're not selling out."

"This will make people take this whole issue more seriously and make people realize they have less time than they thought," Gidumal said.

Automakers who use forms of CFCs for air conditioner coolant appear to be ahead of the rest of industry. They've already phased out using the CFCs in expanded foam for seats, dashboards and other interior auto parts.

Ford Motor Co. said all its car and truck air conditioners will be free of CFCs by the end of 1994. Chrysler Corp.'s new Grand Cherokee is rolling off the line with CFC-free air conditioning, and minivans, the company's best-selling vehicles, will get the new systems in 1993 models.

GM says all its cars and trucks will have alternative cooling systems by 1995, but has not resolved what to do with older cars on the road whose air conditioners use CFCs.

"There's no way to use the new compound in old systems," Dinan said. "People are holding on to their cars longer, and they will want service of the systems."