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In recent months, scientists around the world have been extremely intrigued by a mysterious increase in emissions of polluting gases that have done is to drastically damage the ozone layer that protects the Earth.
Now, those responsible have been discovered: polyurethane foam insulation for domestic use produced in China at a reduced price.
The Environmental Research Agency (EIA) based in the United Kingdom, found that a chemical compound used in the production of these insulators – and which was banned in 2010 – is being widely used in China: CFC-11 or chlorofluorocarbons-11.
And the EIA report found that the source of these is the construction industry of homes in China.
Two months ago, the researchers published a study that showed that the expected decrease in the use of CFC-11, after it was totally banned eight years ago, had slowed drastically.
The researchers suspected that someone was using the compounds somewhere in East Asia.
Despite the extensive rumors, no source was known. There were fears among experts that the chemical compound was being used secretly to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
Now it is known that the source is linked to the isolation of homes.
CFC-11 is a highly efficient “blowing agent” for polyurethane foam because it helps it expand by converting it into the rigid thermal insulation used in homes to reduce the cost of electricity and reduce carbon emissions.
The EIA researchers contacted the polyurethane foam factories in 10 different provinces in China.
After having detailed conversations with the executives of 18 companies, the researchers concluded that the chemical compound was being used in most of the polyurethane insulators that the companies produce.
The reason is simple: the CFC-11 are of better quality and much cheaper than the alternatives that can be used.
Although CFC-11 is prohibited, enforcement is bad.
“We were totally shocked to find that the companies were very open in confirming that they were using CFC-11 and at the same time acknowledging that it was illegal,” Avipsa Mahapatra, one of the EIA’s researchers, told the BBC.
“The fact that they were so complacent about it, the fact that they openly told us about the widespread use of the market, was a shocking finding for us,” he adds.
The EIA calculates that the amount of gas used in China is in the middle of the emissions scale calculated by scientists in its report in May.
However, although the results of the EIA seem plausible, experts say it is difficult to say that they are definitive.
Dr. Stephen Montzka of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States (Noaa) told the BBC: “The widespread use of CFC-11 that appears to be apparent in China, based on the study (of the EIA), is quite surprising”.
“Although for me it is difficult to analyze the accuracy of the calculation of emissions they make to know if it is really possible that this activity can explain everything or almost everything we are observing in the global atmosphere.”
So, why is the finding important?
It matters because of the huge amount of illegal chemicals that are being used and their potential to reverse the recovery that had started in the ozone layer.
China’s polyurethane foam accounts for almost a third of global production, so if they are using this substance that is damaging ozone it will be a decade or more backward movement in the objective to close the hole in the layer.
What can be done?
Because China is a signatory to the Montreal Protocol, which governs the use of substances harmful to ozone, it may be possible to establish trade sanctions against it.
But since the protocol was signed in 1987, this weapon of last resort has never been used and is not expected to be used in this case.
Most likely, China will be encouraged to decrease the production of CFC-11 and launch an investigation with the support of the Montreal Protocol secretariat.
This week the delegates of the Protocol will meet in Vienna and will try to implement a plan to address the problem.