The Multinational Monitor


E N V I R O N M E N T A L   B O A R D   G A M E S

DuPont's Duplicity

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 and Standard.

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 health consequences.

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.

By the 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 North America.

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 CFCs.

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 hydrogen atom.

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 no.

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'," he says.

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," he said.

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 Public Works.

Table of Contents