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Ozone Depletion: An Introduction

Planet Earth has its own natural sunscreen that shields us from the sun's damaging ultraviolet radiation. It's called the ozone layer: a fragile band of gases beginning 15 kilometres above our planet, and reaching up to the 40-kilometre level. Human activities have caused a substantial thinning of this protective covering not only over the North and South Poles, but right over our heads. Stopping ozone layer depletion is one of the major challenges facing the world today. The stakes are incredibly high. For the ozone layer is truly a "conserver of life," essential to the survival of all living things.

The Stratospheric Ozone Layer

The ozone layer lies in the stratosphere, in the upper level of our atmosphere. The ozone in it is spread very sparsely. In fact, if you could squish the ozone layer to the same air pressure we have at sea level, it would be only about as thick as the sole of your shoe. Stratospheric ozone filters out most of the sun's potentially harmful shortwave ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This ozone has become depleted, due to the release of such ozonedepleting substances as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). When stratospheric ozone is depleted, more UV rays reach the earth. Exposure to higher amounts of UV radiation could have serious impacts on human beings, animals and plants (see The Impacts of Ozone Depletion). The stratospheric ozone layer sometimes gets confused with the ozone lying near the earth's surface, known as "ground-level ozone." Although some ground-level ozone occurs naturally, most is produced by the reaction of sunlight with chemicals found mainly in automobile exhaust and gasoline vapours. This human-caused ozone is a key, unhealthy ingredient of smog. Ironically, we have too much ozone at ground level and not enough in the stratosphere.

Depletion of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer (Ozone Depletion)

In 1985, a group of scientists made an unsettling discovery: a marked decrease in stratospheric ozone over the South Pole, in the Antarctic. The depletion appeared during the southern hemisphere's spring (October and November) and then filled in. Soon after the Antarctic hole was found, Canadian scientists discovered that the ozone layer above the Arctic is also thinning significantly. The highest latitudes the north and south poles experience the greatest amount of ozone loss, during their spring. Ozone depletion is most pronounced in the Antarctic. But ozone depletion, to a lesser degree, now occurs in the mid-latitudes. For example, the amount of stratospheric ozone over the northern hemisphere has been dropping by 4% per decade. What does this mean for life on earth? Even the smallest reduction in stratospheric ozone can have a noticeable impact by increasing the amount of UV radiation that reaches the planet. Studies show, for example, that a decrease in stratospheric ozone could cause

additional deaths from skin cancer. Even a 1% global reduction in ozone is expected to cause a significant drop in crop yields, in a world that is already struggling to feed itself.

The Impacts of Ozone Depletion

Stratospheric ozone filters out most of the sun's potentially harmful shortwave ultraviolet (UV) radiation. If this ozone becomes depleted, then more UV rays will reach the earth. Exposure to higher amounts of UV radiation could have serious impacts on human beings, animals and plants, such as the following:

Harm to human health:

More skin cancers, sunburns and premature aging of the skin. More cataracts, blindness and other eye diseases: UV radiation can damage several parts of the eye, including the lens, cornea, retina and conjunctiva.

Cataracts (a clouding of the lens) are the major cause of blindness in the world. A sustained 10% thinning of the ozone layer is expected to result in almost two million new cases of cataracts per year, globally (Environment Canada, 1993).

Weakening of the human immune system (immunosuppression). Early findings suggest that too much UV radiation can suppress the human immune system, which may play a role in the development of skin cancer.

Adverse impacts on agriculture, forestry and natural ecosystems:

Several of the world's major crop species are particularly vulnerable to increased UV, resulting in reduced growth, photosynthesis and flowering. These species include wheat, rice, barley, oats, corn, soybeans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli and carrots.

The effect of ozone depletion on the Canadian agricultural sector could be significant. Only a few commercially important trees have been tested for UV (UV-B) sensitivity, but early results suggest that plant growth, especially in seedlings,

is harmed by more intense UV radiation. Damage to marine life: In particular, plankton (tiny organisms in the surface layer of oceans) are threatened by increased UV radiation. Plankton are the first vital step in aquatic food chains.

Decreases in plankton could disrupt the fresh and saltwater food chains, and lead to a species shift in Canadian waters. Loss of biodiversity in our oceans, rivers and lakes could reduce fish yields for commercial and sport fisheries.


In domestic animals, UV overexposure may cause eye and skin cancers. Species of marine animals in their developmental stage (e.g. young fish, shrimp larvae and crab larvae) have been threatened in recent years by the increased UV radiation under the Antarctic ozone hole.


Wood, plastic, rubber, fabrics and many construction materials are degraded by UV radiation. The economic impact of replacing and/or protecting materials could be significant.

What Governments are Doing about Ozone Depletion

194 nations, including Canada, have signed an international agreement to end the production ofchlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons and other ozone-depleting substances (ODS). The agreement is called theMontreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987). The protocol has been amended several times, to speed up ODS phaseout dates and to include more types of ODS. The federal and provincial/territorial governments share responsibility for protecting the ozone layer. Under the Montreal Protocol, the federal government is responsible for controlling the import, manufacture, use, sale and export of ODS. To meet these requirements, Canada has established:

regulations; an ODS-phaseout program: Canadas Strategy to Accelerate the Phase-Out of CFC and Halon Uses and to Dispose of the Surplus Stocks (PDF: 211 KB/27 pages); and the National Action Plan for the Environmental Control of Ozone-Depleting

Substances and their Halocarbon Alternatives (PDF: 117KB/42 pages). For more information, see Environment Canada's Stratospheric Ozone website. The provincial/territorial governments manage the use and handling of ODS. The B.C. Government passed the Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation in 1993 to control ODS stored in products and equipment, and encourage consumers and industry to use more environmentally safe alternatives. In Schedule A of the regulation, Class I lists all CFCs and halons, as well as methyl chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. Class I substances are considered to have the most significant impact on ozone layer depletion. Class II of Schedule A lists all hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are considered the transitional substances or alternatives to Class I substances. Both Class I and Class II are ozone-depleting substances. The regulation was amended in November 1999, mainly to include other halocarbons as Class III substances e.g., hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). The

Class III substances do not contain chlorine or bromine atoms, so they don't deplete the ozone layer. However, they are considered potent greenhouse gases and have a significant global warming potential (GWP). The amendments in 1999 also strengthened certain requirements, and the regulation was renamed the Ozone Depleting Substances and Other Halocarbons Regulation. The regulation was amended again in 2004, largely to implement Canadas National Action Plan, which includes phaseout dates for Class I substances (Section 27 of the regulation). These amendments also included additional CFC-refill restrictions for the mobile and commercial refrigeration sectors, refill restrictions for halon fire extinguishers and revised seller take-back provisions for surplus CFC refrigerators. For more information and to download a copy of the regulation, see Amendments to the Ozone Depleting Substances and Other Halocarbons Regulation. To make sure ODS are recovered correctly, technicians working with these chemicals must be an approved person as defined in the regulation. This includes having successfully completed an ODS environmental-awareness course approved by Environment Canada and the ministry. Technicians must also follow the procedures detailed in Environment Canadas Environmental Code of Practice for Elimination of Fluorocarbon Emissions from Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Systems (PDF: 61 pages) and the Environmental Code of Practice for Halons. B.C. no longer allows the recharging of a motor vehicle air conditioner (MVAC) with any Class I substance, e.g., CFC-12, the common refrigerant in older air conditioners. When vehicles are scrapped or their air conditioners are repaired, the ODS must be recovered safely, with no leaks. A Class II, III or other alternative substance must be used as the replacement refrigerant. Anyone servicing an MVAC system must have successfully completed an MVAC servicing-and-retrofitting course approved by the Ministry of Environment.

What You Can Do about Ozone Depletion

Help Prevent Further Ozone Depletion
The nations of the world have taken a crucial step in joining together to halt the production and use of ozone-destroying chemicals. But the work can't stop there. Here's what you can do:

Know the rules: It is illegal to recharge refrigerators, freezers and home/vehicle air conditioners with CFCs. If you have an older vehicle with an air conditioner*, have it serviced by a qualified technician, and make sure the CFC is recaptured and recycled by technician who is specifically certified to do this work. If you don't use your air conditioner or if the vehicle is about to be scrapped make sure a qualified technician recaptures and recycles the CFC. *Vehicles of model year 1995 or newer do not use CFCs.

The same rules apply to older refrigerators freezers and home air conditioners, which may contain CFCs. Don't buy or use portable fire extinguishers that contain halons.

Protect Yourself from Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation

Some ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun has always reached the earth, but most of it has been screened out by the ozone layer. There has always been a reason for people to avoid too much of the sun's damaging rays. But this is true now more than ever, due to ozone depletion. Be sun safe. Follow these tips:

There's no such thing as a "healthy" tan. Tanning isn't good for you, especially when the ozone layer is depleted. Fair-skinned people are particularly vulnerable to UV radiation, as are infants and children but everyone should be careful. Be aware that UV radiation is most intense during the summer, so take extra precautions. Don't overlook all the "innocent" minutes throughout the year when you're outside briefly. They can add up to a lot of radiation. Sit in the shade, and avoid prolonged exposure when the sun is high: between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wear protective clothing and a broad-brimmed sunhat. Sunglasses with 100% UV protection are also important. Use a good sunscreen and apply it liberally. It should have a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and screen both UV-A and UV-B rays. Reapply sunscreen after you've been swimming or perspiring a lot. Check Environment Canada's UV Index: It helps Canadians protect themselves from overexposure to UV radiation, by providing twice-daily forecasts of the amount of radiation expected for different areas of the country. Taking a holiday in your favourite tropical isle? Have fun, but be very cautious about those UV rays. Though ozone depletion is not as pronounced near the equator, the ultraviolet radiation is extremely intense, mainly due to the angle of the sun. Keep in mind that you can still get a lot of sun in the winter. Be especially careful when you're doing outdoor sports, such as skiing. Reflection off fresh snow nearly doubles UV radiation.

The Causes of Ozone Depletion

Scientific evidence indicates that stratospheric ozone is being destroyed by a group of manufactured chemicals, containing chlorine and/or bromine. These chemicals are called "ozone-depleting substances" (ODS). ODS are very stable, nontoxic and environmentally safe in the lower atmosphere, which is why they became so popular in the first place. However, their very stability allows them to float up, intact, to the stratosphere. Once there, they are broken apart by the intense ultraviolet light, releasing chlorine and bromine. Chlorine and bromine demolish ozone at an alarming rate, by stripping an atom from the ozone molecule. A single molecule of chlorine can break apart thousands of molecules of ozone.

What's more, ODS have a long lifetime in our atmosphere up to several centuries. This means most of the ODS we've released over the last 80 years are still making their way to the stratosphere, where they will add to the ozone destruction. The main ODS are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HCFCs), carbon tetrachloride and methyl chloroform. Halons (brominated fluorocarbons) also play a large role. Their application is quite limited: they're used in specialized fire extinguishers. But the problem with halons is they can destroy up to 10 times as much ozone as CFCs can. For this reason, halons are the most serious ozone-depleting group of chemicals emitted in British Columbia. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are being developed to replace CFCs and HCFCs, for uses such as vehicle air conditioning. HFCs do not deplete ozone, but they are strong greenhouse gases. CFCs are even more powerful contributors to global climate change, though, so HFCs are still the better option until even safer substitutes are discovered.

The Main Ozone-Depleting Substances (ODS)

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

The most widely used ODS, accounting for over 80% of total stratospheric ozone depletion. Used as coolants in refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners in buildings and cars manufactured before 1995. Found in industrial solvents, dry-cleaning agents and hospital sterilants. Also used in foam products such as soft-foam padding (e.g. cushions

and mattresses) and rigid foam (e.g. home insulation). Halons

Used in some fire extinguishers, in cases where materials and equipment would be destroyed by water or other fire extinguisher chemicals. In B.C., halons cause greater damage to the ozone layer than do CFCs from automobile

air conditioners. Methyl Chloroform

Used mainly in industry for vapour degreasing, some aerosols, cold

cleaning, adhesives and chemical processing. Carbon Tetrachloride

Used in solvents and some fire extinguishers. Hydrofluorocarbons (HCFCs) HCFCs have become major, transitional substitutes for CFCs. They are much less harmful to stratospheric ozone than CFCs are. But HCFCs they still cause some ozone destruction and are potent greenhouse gases.