CFC-11: Someone's Producing This Banned Ozone-Eating Chemical—but No-one Knows Who

Scientists think someone is producing a banned, ozone-depleting chemical under the radar. Countries were supposed to phase out CFC-11 by 2010, but scientists have spotted the release of far more than governments are reporting.

If rogue production continues, it might just hold back the fragile recovery of Earth's vital ozone shield, despite years of success.

CFC-11 is a chlorofluorocarbon. The chemical was used in aerosol cans, in foam and even in novelty drinking birds, until scientists realized it was seeping into the atmosphere and eating the ozone layer.

Ultraviolet rays break down CFCs—which can survive in the atmosphere for some 50 years. This produces chlorine, which destroys ozone molecules. The ozone layer shields life on Earth from damaging UV, which can cause eye damage and skin cancer in humans.

Production of CFC-11 was phased out under the United Nation's Montreal Protocol in 2010. But, someone, somewhere has started churning the out the gas.

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NOAA staff at the South Pole get ready to release an ozone-measuring instrument on a balloon. NOAA

CFC-11 emissions, the researchers found, have risen by a quarter over the last six years. Although countries have reported next to zero emissions since 2006, from 2014 to 2016, 14,000 extra tons per year were seeping into the atmosphere.

"I've been making these measurements for more than 30 years, and this is the most surprising thing I've seen," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Stephen Montzka, who led the new research published in Nature, told the Washington Post. "I was astounded by it, really."

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Data suggests the emissions culprit might be located in eastern Asia, but more research is needed to be certain, Montzka said in a statement.

"Somebody's cheating," Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development told the Post. "There's some slight possibility there's an unintentional release, but … [the study team] make it clear there's strong evidence this is actually being produced."

Read more: Ozone layer isn't healing after all—and depletion may be more harmful than ever

The researchers considered a number of explanations for the rise, but none could account for the volume released. Movement of gases around the atmosphere, the destruction of buildings harboring CFCs from the 1970s and the failure to capture the chemical during the production of other chemicals could all lead to a rise in CFC-11, but not nearly enough to explain the results.

Rogue production, the scientists wrote, seemed to be the best explanation.

If authorities can lock down the source of the rogue emissions, ozone damage should be small, Montzka said in the statement. If not, our ozone layer's fragile recovery could be under threat.