Smuggled CFC gas from India has been seeping into the United States by the ton, allowing American motorists to stay cool for less this summer but prolonging the threat to the Earth’s ozone shield.
The U.S. Customs Service says the contraband chloro fluorocarbon-12, the air-conditioning gas commonly called Freon, has suddenly become its No. 2 problem, behind illegal drugs.
“It’s like Prohibition all over again,” Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, a federal prosecutor in Miami, said of the gas-smuggling centered on south Florida.
Here in India, where CFC-12 production is still legal, a company identified as a source of black-market gas denied any knowledge of it.
Whoever is shipping it, plenty is available: India’s manufacturers are being squeezed out of other remaining legal CFC markets by big Western companies.
Stakes are high on all sides.
One scheme broken up in Florida - with an Indian connection - involved CFC-12 worth $52 million. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has lost possibly hundreds of millions in tax revenues because of coolant smuggling. And big business has an investment of billions riding on weaning the world from CFCs and getting it hooked on new chemicals.
A 1987 treaty, the Montreal Protocol, phases out CFCs because of evidence that the compounds damage the upper atmosphere’s ozone layer, which shields Earth from most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and prevents skin cancer and other illnesses.
Since Jan. 1, CFC imports and production for domestic use have been banned in the United States. They were banned in Western Europe a year earlier.
In recent years, to encourage conversion to equipment using the new chemicals, the U.S. government imposed huge taxes and import duties on CFCs, more than tripling the price of a 30-pound cylinder to about $250. Domestic production was sharply reduced.
The gas, long the most widely used coolant, is still in demand, particularly for air conditioners in more than 100 million older U.S. automobiles. Motorists now must spend up to $100 to replenish leaky air conditioners with a few pounds of legally taxed CFCs, or $200 or more to re-equip for the new coolants.