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Ozone Warning : He Sounded Alarm, Paid Heavy Price

Times Staff Writer

Half-rimmed black glasses pushed midway down his nose, Prof. F. Sherwood (Sherry) Rowland leaned back in a swivel desk chair, wearily studying the ceiling.

A day earlier he had testified before a Senate subcommittee in Washington. Now the 61-year-old chemist was back in his cluttered office at UC Irvine where, still fighting jet lag, he was laying plans for an experiment in Alaska on atmospheric pollution and fending off speaking invitations from Rotary clubs, the West German Parliament, the American Chemical Society and several universities.

Rowland sighed. For the first time in 14 years, he was swamped with speaking requests.

‘Ban Has Been Lifted’

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The interest was gratifying but more than a little ironic. “They won’t admit it but this means some kind of ban has been lifted,” Rowland said.

For as Rowland and others recount it, ever since 1974, when he and UCI postdoctoral fellow Mario Molina first theorized that the Earth’s protective ozone layer was being damaged by synthetic chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Rowland has paid a price for his ideas.

In part, that’s because Rowland didn’t just make his discovery, write up the results and quietly return to his lab.

Instead, shocked by the implications of his research, he took an unusual public stance--doggedly telling reporters, Congress, half a dozen state legislatures, and just about anyone who seemed interested that ozone loss could lead to skin cancer and catastrophic climatic change. And, again and again for more than a decade, he urged that CFCs be banned.

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In doing so, Rowland took on a $28-billion-a-year industry whose products, ranging from home insulating materials to solvents for electronic equipment, have become an essential part of modern life.

Safe, Industry Says

The industry reaction was to discount Rowland and Molina’s hypothesis. Their profitable chlorofluorocarbons were safe, CFC manufacturers said; there was no proof that the ozone layer was damaged.

And in mounting a defense for CFCs, they also turned their attack on Rowland.

In the mid-1970s, industry scientists and executives disparaged the ozone depletion hypothesis as nonsense and in August, 1977, the president of one aerosol manufacturing firm suggested that criticism of CFCs was “orchestrated by the Ministry of Disinformation of the KGB.”

At congressional hearings and academic meetings, there were suggestions that Rowland was a publicity seeker or, one of Rowland’s UCI colleagues recalled, “some kind of a nut.”

When Rowland spoke at colleges and press conferences, he was often followed by a couple of CFC industry officials who watched from a distance or peppered him with hostile questions, according to industry observers.

Sometimes he was invited to speak on CFCs at professional meetings, then found the invitation quietly withdrawn.

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But now, like the proverbial prophet dishonored in his own land, Rowland has turned out to be right.

Last March 15, a new report by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration showed that CFCs were destroying ozone far more rapidly than previously believed. The new measurements showed that from 1969 to 1987, ozone levels above the United States fell 2.3%, with losses of up to 6.2% in the winter. The report reinforced earlier research showing a growing hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic, also linked to CFCs.

Meanwhile, 31 nations agreed to a treaty aimed at reducing CFC consumption by 50% by the end of the century.

End of Production Promised

Reacting to the NASA study, the Du Pont Co. of Wilmington, Del., the world’s largest manufacturer of CFCs, promised for the first time to phase out production of the compounds. Three weeks later, 15 manufacturers of foam food containers pledged to convert from CFCs to safer compounds by the end of the year.

Most spokesmen for major American CFC manufacturers either declined comment on Rowland or denied that he has been treated unfairly.

“We are going to decline to be interviewed on the subject of Rowland. We don’t want to get into personalities. We don’t think that has anything to do with the subject of the science,” said Kathy H. Forte, a senior public affairs specialist with the Freon Products division of Du Pont Co.

However, L. Craig Skaggs, Du Pont’s public affairs manager, noted later that Rowland had become “somewhat of a celebrity in the scientific community” because of his views on ozone loss and “may have suffered unduly as anyone does who offers up a new idea.”

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Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for a Responsible CFC Policy, a Rosslyn, Va., lobby that represents several hundred CFC manufacturers and users, said Rowland’s outspokenness made him controversial.

“When you have been an advocate, does that color your scientific judgment?” Fay asked. “That’s something they (scientists) guard more than anything else--their perceived neutrality. And that influences opinion of Rowland.”

Rowland remains an internationally respected chemist who has been a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences for 10 years, has won some of the nation’s top science prizes and manages $800,000 in federal research grants. And he still presents at least 10 scientific papers a year.

But he has not forgotten the attacks.

“This is what happens to a person who’s out on a limb,” he said matter-of-factly. “The reaction is much more to shoot the messenger than to congratulate him.”

Rowland says he never intended to start a major scientific and political debate.

When he began studying reactions in the ozone layer, it was because he was interested in experiments “that take us out of the laboratory, into the ocean, to do something a little bit different. You need to start from scratch every few years just to have something new to do--to not get in a rut.”

And when the calculations showed a global problem, Rowland said, he simply felt it was his duty as a citizen to talk about it. “One of the things one realizes fairly quickly,” he said, “is that no one else is going to.”

The son of an Ohio Wesleyan University math professor, Rowland grew up in Delaware, Ohio.

After completing his undergraduate work at Ohio Wesleyan in 1948, Rowland in 1952 earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Chicago. He taught at Princeton and the University of Kansas before joining UCI in 1964 as founding chairman of the chemistry department. After six years as chairman, Rowland returned to research.

In January, 1972, Rowland attended a Florida meeting on atmospheric research and learned of curious findings by British scientist James Lovelock showing that the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere was about equal to the quantity produced by the chemical industry.

Back at Irvine, Rowland told colleagues that he didn’t believe the common wisdom that CFC molecules were inert--that under ordinary conditions they would not react with any other chemicals. One chemistry professor recalls chatting with Rowland over coffee as he worried aloud about “these things just drifting up” forever.

Investigation Begun

For about a year, Rowland mulled over the problem. In June, 1973, when postdoctoral student Mario Molina began to work with him, Rowland invited him to investigate CFCs.

Neither Rowland nor Molina had a background in atmospheric chemistry, a complex field that many chemists avoid. “Chemists like to design an experiment where there’s just one variable. We’re taught to change one thing at a time,” noted chemist Harold W. Moore, dean of physical sciences at UCI. By contrast, researchers in atmospheric science must consider not only the mixing of many chemicals but also how those chemicals will respond to wind and light.

For several months Molina read CFC trade journals, boned up on atmospheric science and began to make calculations. “At first it did not appear terribly interesting,” recalled Molina, now a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

After establishing that CFCs were indeed stable at lower altitudes, Molina and Rowland began to calculate what would happen over the next 150 years as CFCs slowly drifted into the stratosphere 20 to 30 miles above the Earth.

At high altitudes, they knew, ultraviolet light would splinter the CFC molecules, freeing an atom of chlorine. They also discovered a rapid, catalytic chain reaction in which a single chlorine atom would combine with ozone, form chlorine oxide and then break apart to combine with ozone again--destroying as many as 100,000 ozone molecules before the process would end.

They didn’t believe the calculations at first. “Our immediate reaction,” Rowland told one interviewer, was “we have made some huge error. This is much too big a number.”

Magnitude Becomes Apparent

Slowly, as they checked and rechecked their results, the magnitude of potential ozone loss began to sink in.

Ozone is crucial to life on the planet because it absorbs much of the radioactivity emitted by the sun. Scientists have long believed that without the protective band of ozone, plants and animals could not live on Earth.

Studies by the National Academy of Sciences in 1974 indicated that a 5% decrease in the ozone layer would result in an additional 8,000 cases of skin cancer a year in the United States. In all, the buildup of CFCs in the stratosphere seemed to Rowland and Molina a prescription for disaster.

Rowland’s wife, Joan, recalls one night in the fall of 1973 when her husband got home late from work. “How’d it go?” she had asked drowsily.

“It’s going very well,” he said. “It just means, I think, the end of the world.”

Rowland and Molina’s paper on CFCs appeared in the scientific journal Nature in June, 1974, but a strong reaction did not begin to build until that September at the American Chemical Society meeting in Atlantic City.

Their press conference made headlines around the country as Rowland warned that 10% of the ozone layer could be lost in the next 50 years. Environmentalists and editorial writers were quick to echo his alarm.

From the start, reaction from the chemical industry was sharply negative. Officials from the Manufacturing Chemists Assn. and Du Pont emphasized that Rowland and Molina’s theory was “purely speculative.”

The CFC manufacturers also announced that they would begin their own study of ozone depletion; in the meantime, they suggested, natural forces like volcanic action were probably the source for any ozone loss--not CFCs.

Validity of Theory Confirmed

But that fall, officials at the National Academy of Sciences formed the first of several study committees that would confirm the validity of Rowland and Molina’s hypothesis.

Over the next several years, the ozone depletion theory was hotly debated at scientific meetings, by state legislatures in New York, Oregon and California and in Congress. Though Molina testified at some of these hearings, Rowland quickly became the leading spokesman.

Scientists regularly find their work subject to challenge but the tone of this controversy was unusually acerbic.

Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) recalled that Rowland was subjected to personal attacks at some of the nine hearings that he and Sen. Pete Dominici (D-N.M.) held on ozone depletion between 1975 and 1976.

“There were times when the industry tried to make it appear that Sherry Rowland was just a maverick out there in the boonies and he had come up with this crazy scheme that was flawed,” Bumpers said. “They just sort of made it look as though he was off the deep end, that he was an oddball.”

The problem, according to Clemson University chemistry professor Darryl D. DesMarteau, was that Rowland had found a flaw in “the most marvelous chemicals that you could find.”

For more than 40 years, CFCs were considered “the perfect compound.” Discovered in 1928 by a General Motors chemist for that company’s Frigidaire division, they replaced other compounds--ammonia, sulfur dioxide, or methyl chloride--then used as refrigerants; but those other compounds were poisonous, flammable or potentially explosive. By contrast, CFCs were nontoxic, non-flammable and appeared never to react with other chemicals.

By 1976, U.S. manufacturers were producing 750 million pounds of CFCs a year--55% used as propellants in aerosol sprays.

Though the debate over CFCs continued, in 1978 the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency banned their use in nearly all aerosol sprays.

Brief Drop in Production

Worldwide production of CFCs dropped off briefly after the U.S. aerosol ban, but soon it began to rise as the chemicals continued to be used in the production of air-conditioning units, home insulation materials and many other products.

Meanwhile, Rowland was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1978 and, over the next decade, received a string of the nation’s top chemistry awards.

But Rowland noticed that after a flurry of interest from 1974 to 1978, he was rarely invited to participate in government or industry panels.

“He did have outcast status for a long time,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There was the tendency of industry and people sympathetic to industry to say, ‘Oh, that’s just Sherry,’ discounting what he had to say.”

A senior EPA official agreed. “In the last couple of years, when we as a government agency had meetings, there has been pressure to either exclude him or have an industry scientist to at least counter him.”

Igor Sobolev, a consultant for Kaiser Aluminum and a member of the Chemical Manufacturer Assn.'s CFC panel, said Rowland was unpopular with industry officials because he immediately took such a strong and--in their view--unrealistic stance for banning CFCs and then was “impatient with people who don’t think like he does.”

Also, Rowland can be “very sarcastic,” Sobolev noted. At a scientific meeting last year, Rowland referred to one scientist’s theory--that Antarctic ozone loss was caused not by CFCs but by changes in weather and winds--as “the tooth fairy theory.”

As an example of what Rowland ran into, consider what happened when a reporter for the PBS program the “McNeil/Lehrer News-Hour” planned a March 24 segment on the ozone controversy.

Initially, reporter Marilyn Fletcher’s panel was to feature Rowland; Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City; and a representative from Du Pont Co.

Objection Told

Rowland agreed to participate. But then Fletcher mentioned the idea to Du Pont public affairs manager Skaggs, who allegedly objected.

“They were more worried about the balance (of the show)-- about having two alarmist, heavy-handed pros, ‘protect the ozone layer’ people against Du Pont,” she said.

Skaggs denied making those remarks. However, he confirmed he had complained that Fletcher’s proposed panel “would just be pitting environmentalists against business.” Also, Skaggs said, he had suggested replacing either Rowland or Oppenheimer with a “true, objective scientist"--Robert Watson, who recently chaired a NASA panel on ozone loss that Rowland also served on.

The reporter’s response: Rowland was dropped from the guest list. Fletcher said she had believed Rowland “would have added a great deal because of the historical perspective . . . but since Du Pont did question that"--and because panelist Oppenheimer would cover the “environmentalist angle,"--Fletcher accepted Watson instead.

Rowland these days is a weary veteran of the “ozone war.”

In his office at UC Irvine, Rowland looked up from a desk piled high with papers. “I guess I’m just a whistle-blower now,” he growled, “instead of a whistle-blower who was wrong.”

That outcome was probably predictable, some of Rowland’s admirers suggested.

“Scientists pay a price for becoming advocates,” the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oppenheimer said. “Most scientists are satisfied to pursue their research without the question of whether it’s socially relevant. They don’t have the time or inclination to pursue their findings.

“But if scientists don’t explain the meaning of their work in a political context--who will?”

USES OF CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS U.S. manufacturers produce more than 700 million pounds of chlorofluorocarbons a year for use in a wide range of products. Here is a breakdown of the main uses of the five major CFC compounds.

1. Refrigerants in automobile air-conditioning systems 20%

2. Rigid foam insulation in homes and offices 17%

3. Solvents for cleaning electronic components 12%

4. Blown foam insulating material in refrigerators, storage tanks, etc. 10%

5. Refrigerants in commercial refrigeration systems 9%6. Solvents for degreasing metal parts 8%7. Aerosol sprays 4%8. Refrigerants in large commercial air-conditioning systems 4%9. Miscellaneous other uses 4%10. Disinfectants or sterilants in hospitals 3%

11. Cushioning foams in automobiles, airplane seats, furniture 3%

12. Refrigerants in home refrigerators 2%

13. Polystyrene foam plastics, such as fast-food containers 2%

14. Food freezants (a new technology used to process frozen foods by immersing them in CFCs) 2%

Source: Alliance for a Responsible CFC Policy, Rosyln, Va.


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