Profiting at the Planet's Expense
by Curtis Moore
E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Companyhas developed and marketed
a long line of harmful products. The company which is controlled by the
DuPont family is responsible for HCFCs and CFCs as well as "Ethyl," the
lead additive for gasoline. The most troubling aspect of DuPont's inventions
is not that some have damaged the environment, but that the company has
consistently treated the long-term interests of humanity as largely irrelevant.
The case of leaded gasoline at the turn of the century illustrates this
corporate disregard and bears a resemblance to the struggles over CFCs
in the 1970s and eighties. Leaded gasoline, along with other products like
pipes and paint made with the toxic metal, has irrevocably damaged the
intelligence of two generations of American children and is responsible
for 50,000 deaths a year by heart attack and stroke.
The "Ethyl" story
begins in 1904 when William Durant acquired the Buick Motor Company which
became the cornerstone for General Motors (GM)--a conglomerate formed by
Durant in 1908 when he bought 20 other car companies, including Cadillac
and Oldsmobile. Sapped of capital, Durant and General Motors became easy
prey for DuPont which gobbled up the company a piece at a time until, on
December 1, 1920, Pierre du Pont became both president and chairman of
the board of General Motors.
At the same time that DuPont was consolidating
control of General Motors, GM scientists were perfecting a compound to
boost the octane content of gasoline--a measure of the fuel's anti-knock
properties. General Motors first marketed the additive in 1922. In 1924,
GM joined with the oil giant, Standard Oil of New Jersey, to form the Ethyl
Corporation which would market the chemical. This was a wholly owned subsidiary
and ownership was split 50-50 between the DuPont-controlled General Motors
The marketing of Ethyl soon drew criticism. As General Motors
began to develop markets, chemistry professor William Clark warned the
Assistant Surgeon General that Ethyl was "a serious menace to the public
health." In response to reports that several serious cases of lead poisoning
had already occurred, General Motors executives replied that levels "on
the average street will probably be so free of lead that it will be impossible
to detect it."
DuPont was forced to address the problem, however, in late
1924 when reports broke that 80 percent of the workers making Ethyl at
DuPont and Standard Oil plants had been killed or severely poisoned. There
was such extensive nerve damage among workers that one refinery became
known as "the House of Butterflies" because of hallucinations suffered
by its employees. Ethyl was pulled from the market abruptly and the Surgeon
General appointed a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to study the additive.
Amidst a growing outcry from scientists, the proponents of Ethyl mounted
a campaign in its defense. DuPont ran full-page ads in Life magazine, and
secretly hired a noted consultant from the U.S. Government's Workers' Health
Bureau. In a hearing held by the Surgeon General, spokesmen for Ethyl,
citing the need to save energy, praised the chemical as an "apparent Gift
of God." Calling lead "a certain means of saving petroleum," the company's
representatives asked: "Because some animals die, and some do not die in
some experiments, shall we give this thing up entirely?"
The Surgeon General's
panel concluded that "there are at present no good grounds for prohibiting
the use of ethyl gasoline." The experts did, however, urge that long-term
research be conducted and regulations be established because, they said,
"Longer experience may show [that even low levels of lead] may lead eventually
in susceptible individuals to recognizable or to chronic degenerative diseases
of a less obvious character."
This weak-kneed conclusion had little effect.
Lead returned to the market; no regulations were ever issued; the studies
were never conducted; and it was not until a half-century later that the
chemical was banned after scientists established conclusively lead's detrimental
Some refiners had refused to buy the lead additive,
preferring instead to produce higher octane, unleaded gasoline through
more sophisticated refineries. The result was gasolines like Sun Oil's
"Blue Sunoco" that not only were of higher octane than Ethyl, but were
unleaded and even sold for two to three cents less per gallon. But DuPont
fought its challengers relentlessly, going so far as to introduce, through
GM, a new car engine which ran only on leaded gasoline. This high-compression
engine has filled cities throughout the world with smog. Consequently,
DuPont's marketing of Ethyl produced a widely-used toxic chemical.
mid-1950s Ethyl gasoline dominated the domestic market. Eventually, Blue
Sunoco disappeared entirely--the same fate that befell the refrigerants
which were rivals of "Freon," another of the GM-DuPont inventions. Indeed,
the parallels between DuPont's handling of CFCs and Ethyl are striking.
Both were invented by the same team and the same lab at roughly the same
time. But they share more than that; the DuPont company adopted similar
strategies to maintain sales of these environmentally hazardous products.
In both cases, DuPont answered critics' concerns about health and environmental
hazards with bold-faced denials. In 1924, when questioned by reporters
concerning the safety of the lead additive, Thomas Midgley, an inventor
and later a vice president of General Motors, washed his hands in pure
tetraethyl and dried them on his handkerchief, according to one historian.
Six years later, to demonstrate dramatically the safety of the CFCs which
he had invented, Midgley took a deep breath of one of the chemicals and
then exhaled to blow out a candle.
In 1974, after doctors F. Sherwood Rowland
and Mario Molina warned that Freon destroyed ozone, DuPont vice president
Raymond L. McCarthy told Congress that the suggestion that Freon destroyed
ozone was "purely speculative with no concrete evidence having been developed
to support it.n A half-century earlier, General Motors was making similar
statements concerning the warnings about Ethyl. At that time, the GM director
of research told the President of the American Medical Association that
"there is no danger of acquiring lead poisoning even through prolonged
exposure to exhaust gases of cars using Ethyl gas."
The 1927 Life magazine
ads which DuPont ran to rehabilitate the Ethyl additive's public reputation
were matched in 1975 by full- page ads in the New York Times and other
daily newspapers, supporting CFCs and paid for by DuPont.
With the evidence
mounting and the completion of an international treaty banning CFCs, DuPont
was finally forced to concede that CFCs can and do destroy stratospheric
ozone. But the ever-resourceful company is now seeking to capture the market
in substitutes. These substitute chemicals are still ozone-depleters, and,
in much the same way that the name "Ethyl" was coined to avoid any reference
to lead DuPont has renamed the substitute for CFCs. This allows companies
that use the product to claim that they are responding to environmental
concerns without being forced to give up the convenience and economic advantages
of their destructive practices (see sidebar).
Once again, a multi-billion dollar market is preserved by a play on words.
And, once again, DuPont is assuring the public and policy-makers that there
is no cause for concern, even though company representatives concede that
the substitutes they are pushing destroy ozone.
Testifying before Congress,
the Alliance for a Responsible Chlorofluorocarbon Policy--an industry group
founded by DuPont and other CFC manufacturers and users--said the newly-named,
ozone destroying chemicals "can be used well into the next century with
no additional impact on peak chlorine levels." DuPont warned a that there
are no alternatives to the HCFC compounds short of economic ruin, much
as it did with respect to lead in 1925 and CFCs in 1975. One DuPont executive
said at a Congressional hearing: "We caution you to be skeptical about
claims that technologies other than those using HCFCs are viable in the
near term for all current CFC applications. You should question their environmental
acceptability, safety, energy efficiency and ability to be mass produced
to meet society's needs."
Yielding to these arguments, as it did with leaded
gasoline in the 1920s and CFCs in the 1970s, the federal government seems
on the verge of granting DuPont's request to continue HCFC production.
Privately, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency say they are
willing to allow production and use of the HCFC until the year 2030. Congress,
for all its hand-wringing about ozone depletion, has never taken direct
regulatory action against CFCs or their manufacturers and seems unlikely
to begin now.
Meanwhile, the same corporations which were wrong about CFCs
and wrong about lead continue to conduct a global experiment with the environment
and humanity's future.
McTruth: Fast Food for Thought
How environmentalists and plastic-foam makers came to terms
Enivornmentalism is a hot item these days. Walk into the local McDonald's and you're likely
to find a placemat purporting to tell the "facts" about plastic foams and their role in
destroying stratospheric ozone. The placemat says that McDonald's plastic-foam food
containers are made without the use of CFCs, the family of chemicals that destroy the
stratospheric ozone layer. The ozone layer filters out skin blistering solar radiation.
Three to 5 percent of it has already been lost to CFCs. And each spring, CFCs ignite a
chain reaction in the Antarctic sky which reopens an ozone hole as big
The placemat in question contains a large amount of text adorned with smiling Big Mac
containers (known in the trade as "clamshells"). A section boldly headlined
"Facts About Foam" declaims that "McDonald's foam packaging is manufactured without
the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are thought to be harmful to the ozone
layer." (McDonald's emphasis).
This is not quite a lie, but it's certainly not the truth -- McTruth, maybe, but not
the real thing.
The story behind McDonald's claim illustrates how easily fiction can be minced, shaped
and reformed to resemble fact. The story includes DuPont, America's largest chemical
company as well as the inventor and world's largest maker of CFCs; the plastic-foam
industry; McDonald's suppliers; the EPA; and, surprisingly, three major environmental
groups: the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Environmental Defense
and Friends of the Earth.
In 1987, McDonald's came under heavy pressure from grade school boycotts, local
environmental groups, the Citizen's Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes and members of
Congress to stop using its Big Mac clamshells and other food packages made with CFCs.
The gases are used to blow tiny bubbles in the plastic, which give it shape, rigidity
and the ability to keep "the hot side hot and the cold side cold," in McDonald's words.
By mid-1987, CFC's destructive impact on the ozone layer which shields us from radiation
so powerful that It can shatter molecules and explode unprotected cells on contact was
almost beyond doubt. While McDonald's and other users of plastic foams liked to characterize
their contribution to ozone depletion as minimal, the amount of CFCs used in food packaging
in the United States was roughly the same as that used in the compressors of home
refrigerators — about 5 percent of total domestic production.
On August 5, 1987, McDonald's announced that because there were "reasonable alternatives to
possibly harmful CFCs" it was beginning a "prompt phaseout." "We required our suppliers to
switch to a non-CFC blowing agent," says Terri Capatosto, director of
media relations for McDonald's, "going to an 18-month phaseout to be completed by the
end of 1988."
This did not mean McDonald's was banning plastic foams, however, because there are other
chemicals from which they can be made. Some of the company's suppliers, for example, use
pentane, a widely employed blowing agent which destroys no ozone whatsoever. Pentane is,
however, highly explosive; many manufacturers understandably preferred to continue using
Eventually, a way was found to circumvent the restrictions on CFC usage. This was
accomplished by changing the name of one CFC so that companies could continue to use
it without incurring the public's wrath about ozone depicters. Instead of calling this
chemical CFC-22, as the industry had for a half-century, it was renamed "HCFC-22"
The rationale for this verbal legerdemain is that CFC-22 is thought to deplete up to 95
percent less ozone than its most potent relatives, CFC-11 and -12. CFC-22 contains an
atom of hydrogen, so it forms weaker chemical bonds than the pure chlorine and flourine
links in -11 and -12. It takes the enormous power of solar radiation in the stratosphere
to shatter the -11 and -12 bonds which is why they destroy ozone at that level. Because
the weaker -22 breaks down closer to earth, less of it reaches stratospheric levels.
Despite this distinction, "CFC-22 and HCFC-22 are the same chemical and that chemical
Is capable of destroying ozone in the stratosphere," says Michael Oppenheimer, a senior
scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
Even the leading manufacturer, DuPont, agrees. DuPont spokeswoman Kathy Forte says "22
HCFC and 22 CFC are the same." The term "HCFC " was not used publicly until January 5,
1988, she says and the name change was necessary to "avoid confusion" because of CFC-22's
But the hydrogen atom is nothing new; CFC-22 contained a hydrogen atom when the family
of chemicals was invented in the 1930s and the hydrogen was still there in 1974 when
scientists warned that CFCs - including -22 -- destroyed ozone. In addition, when ozone
destruction was confirmed in the 1980s, one of the culprits was CFC-22 -- hydrogen atom or
It was not the hydrogen content that changed. It was a political deal.
David Doniger, the lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which spearheaded
negotiations with the industry, explained that the three environmental groups agreed not
to publicly criticize the foam-packaging industry for up to five years in exchange for
an industry pledge to search for less ozone-destructive substitutes for -22 and, if they
were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, to adopt them. Doniger says that the
environmental groups sought the strongest CFC limits that they could get from the industry.
"I don't see that we had any leverage on them to say, 'You all ought to go to cardboard',"
Meanwhile, foam manufacturers were wondering how to explain the use of HCFC-22. They soon
had an answer, courtesy of the U.S. government. In a letter dated January 27, 1988 and
addressed to the plastic-foam industry's Washington-based trade group, the EPA Office of
Clean Air and Radiation sought to "clarify" the move to CFC-22: "Chemicals such as HCFC-22
contain hydrogen ... . Thus, HCFC-22 is not technically a CFC."
Hence the wording on McDonald's placemants
But to Rafe Pomerance of the World Resources Institute, the continued usee of CFC-22 for
plastic foams is indefensible. "It's a greenhouse gas and an ozone depleter. We've
already punched a hole through the Antarctic sky that's the size of North America. We
don't need to keep adding to the problem, especially if McDonald's can get to zero,"
HCFC-22 consumption increased at an average rate of 4 percent a year even before it was
used as a subsititute for -11 or -22. Because of its hydrogen atom, it is not regulated
by the EPA or listed in the Montreal Protocol roster of ozone-depleting chemicals to be
controlled. Consequently, its rate of use is bound to accelerate, and with it, the total
amount of ozone which -22 destroys.
On February 16, 1989, the Food Service and Packaging Institute, the inidustry trade group,
announced that the manufacturers had "met their initial goal of eliminating the use of
CFCs in food service products." This statement is true only in the sense that HCFC-22 is
not technically a CFC. The manufacturers still produce what they always produced: an
ozone destroyer. Therein lies the most dismal aspect of this otherwise petty chicanery.
Many scientists believe that humanity's future hinges on our ability to make informed and
correct ecological choices. To do that we need the truth. All of it.
The Cost of Cool
In addition to the health damage and global warming brought about by automobiles' emissions
of smog pollutants and CO2, there is the serious danger posed to the global atmosphere by
depletion of the Earth's ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in
automobile air conditioning.
The ozone layer prevents the sun's dangerous ultraviolet rays from reaching the Earth's
surface, some I5 miles below. Since the late seventies, CFCs have been known to persist
in the lower atmosphere and slowly rise to the upper atmosphere where they react with and
destroy this naturally occuring blanket of ozone molecules. The consequences of increased
exposure to ultraviolet radiation include greater incidence of skin cancer, as well as
environmental damage. CFCs are doubly dangerous since they both destroy the ozone layer
and contribute to global warming.
Motor vehicle air conditioning represents the single largest use of CFCs in the United States,
accounting for emissions of 33 million kilograms of these synt chemicals in 1985.
CFCs are also
used as cooling fluids in refrigerators, as a cleaning solution in the electronics industry
and as a foam blowing agent by makers of synthetic insulation and styrofoam.
In no other nation in the world is automobile air conditioning the leading use of CFCs,"
says Bill Walsh, legislative director of the Greenpeace toxics campaign. "This large use
by the United States is seen as wasteful and frivolous by other countries, and in
international negotiations on CFC reductions, it diminishes the ability of the United States
to urge other nations to cut back on more essential uses. At the same time, American
automakers and other industries have opposed legislation under which the United States would
take the lead internationally in phasing out CFCs."
In order to have the capacity to cool a car down quickly, even after it has been parked for
hours in the sun, auto air conditioners are built big. Their typical two-ton capacity is
big enough to cool a small house.
Large air conditioners require large amounts of CFCs, and increase gasoline consumption,
as air conditioning can account for up to 10 percent of the energy use in a car.
Servicing auto air conditioners is an extremely wasteful process which accounts for
two-thirds of the CFCs used in auto air-conditioning, and includes repeated steps that
freely vent CFCs to the atmosphere.
While the fact that CFCs destroy the ozone layer has been known since the late 1970s, the
phenomenon is not fully understood and the pace of destruction of the ozone layer has
exceeded scientists' predictions in recent years. Some automakers have begun to respond
positively to growing fears of ozone depletion. At General Motors, dealers will soon
begin capturing and recycling the CFCs which are released when air conditioners are
serviced. And major auto companies in the United States and abroad are working to develop
a non-ozone-depleting chemical to replace CFCs in auto air conditioners. The target date
for use of the most promising substitute, known as HFC-134a, is 1994.
However, questions about the toxicity of HFC-134a and about mechanical alterations that
will be needed to accomodate HFC-134a and closely related chemicals under consideration
remain unresolved. "Considerable risk attends the great reliance being placed on this one
narrow class of chemicals," according to Dr. Arjun Makhijani, director of the Institute
for Energy and Environmental Research. Makhijani has urged automakers to make an
accompanying investment in alternative auto air conditioning systems and cooling systems
that don't rely on air conditioning.
For example, simple changes such as the use of side vent windows and glazed window glass
can adequately cool a car without air conditioning in many climates. Today, 90 percent of
new cars have air conditioning, in accordance with consumer demand, say the automakers.
Solar-powered ventilation systems are another option that has already been designed and
tested but is as yet unused.
Air conditioners that use helium as a coolant have been under consideration by U.S.
automakers, and construction of a prototype is planned but not yet completed. Chrysler
Corp. has said the helium system may have some promise in perhaps 10 to 15 years. But
Makhijani contends that the helium design warrants accelerated work and considerable
investment. Says Walsh, "While banking on the development of HFC-134a, which doesn't
deplete the ozone layer but does contribute to global warming, auto companies have
refused to do the fundamental rethinking that this crisis tells us we should be doing."
- Alexandra Allen
Curtis Moore is an environmental writer and analyst who
served for 11 years as counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment and