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Scientists point blame at car air conditioner

Alarm over a new report that shows the ozone layer is deteriorating faster than scientists thought has focused attention on what consumers can do to ease the depletion.

While aerosol cans get much of the attention, the real villain is the auto air conditioner, environmentalists say.

About 150-million air-conditioned cars and trucks travel America's roads. Each carries about 2{ pounds of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. That's about five times as much as the typical home refrigerator, which contains 6 to 8 ounces.

"Nearly 20 percent of all the CFCs in the United States is coming from car air conditioners," said David Doniger, director of the ozone project at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

CFCs contain molecules of chlorine monoxide and bromine monoxide, which react in sunlight and deplete the protective layer.

The discovery that the ozone layer is thinning at an accelerating rate prompted President Bush on Tuesday to announce a quicker pace for phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals in the United States.

The destruction allows more of the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth, raising the incidence of skin cancer and cataracts. It also can weaken the body's defenses against infection, and it can damage crops and marine life.

Edie Tshering of the Council on Economic Priorities said the most important thing consumers can do to help stop the release of CFCs is to have their air conditioners and refrigerators serviced regularly by technicians who capture and recycle CFCs.

"When you get rid of an old air conditioner or refrigerator, look into opportunities to have it recycled rather than just throw it away," Tshering said. "There are companies that will do that."

The New York-based council published Shopping for a Better World, which calls itself a "guide to socially responsible supermarket shopping."

But smart action by consumers will not come close to solving the problem. The ozone threat won't pass until CFC-based coolers and refrigerators are replaced, and that will be expensive.

Cathy Andriadis, a spokeswoman for DuPont, said $135-billion worth of equipment in the United States is dependent on CFCs. DuPont is one of 15 manufacturers of CFCs worldwide.

In the meantime, the council's shopping guide has a few words to say about those misunderstood aerosol cans.

In 1978, the U.S. government banned the use of ozone-depleting chemicals in most aerosol spray cans. Deodorants, hair sprays and many spray household cleaners are now powered by air pumps or by such chemicals as propane or butane, which don't contain chlorine and therefore don't damage the ozone layer.

But not all aerosol cans were covered. "We did a survey by cruising the shelves of supermarkets, drug stores and shoe-care stores, those sorts of places," said Doniger. "We found 150 products with 1,1,1-trichloroethane," or methyl chloroform.

The products containing methyl chloroform include bug sprays, fabric protectors, waterproofing sprays and spot removers.

Methyl chloroform is among a newer generation of chemicals that are safer for the ozone, but not entirely safe.

Many belong to the class of substances called hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs. They are now used in refrigerators and other cooling equipment.

"It's like hitting the ozone layer with small-arms fire instead of artillery shells," said Doniger."It's still not good for it."

The propane and butane used in some household products are the only propellants that are entirely safe for the ozone layer. But they have another drawback: They contribute to the greenhouse effect.