(CN) — In a master example of the costs of unintended consequences, a group of international scientists has found that the shift from ozone-depleting chemicals in the 1980s has led to the use of alternative chemicals that may be worse for the environment.
New research from New York University and Environment and Climate Change Canada shows that a monumental agreement to regulate the use of chemicals like freon that were shown to damage the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere gave rise to the use of a new generation of chemicals that are not biodegradable and are slowly accumulating in the Arctic.
The research was published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“Our results suggest that global regulation and replacement of other environmentally harmful chemicals contributed to the increase of these compounds in the Arctic, illustrating that regulations can have important unanticipated consequences,” said Cora Young, co-author of the paper.
Ozone depletion was first observed by scientists in the 1970s, who noticed a decrease in the amount of the ozone in the atmosphere while also detailing the deterioration of the stratospheric ozone layer around the Earth’s poles.
The depletion of ozone was responsible for a greater intensity of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, causing an increase in the prevalence of skin cancer, eye cataract disease, and other harmful effects on humans.
Scientists soon identified a select set of manufactured chemicals, particularly halocarbon refrigerants used in air conditioners and refrigerators, as the principal culprit in the damage to ozone levels. Solvents, propellants, and chemical agents found in foam were also categorized as ozone-depleting substances.
To combat the problem, the world convened and developed the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which called for the phasing out of the damaging chemicals while banning the production of chlorofluorocarbons.
The Montreal Protocol is still widely considered the most effective international environmental agreement in history.
But the research published on Thursday calls into question whether the replacement chemicals the world agreed upon could be at least as harmful as the substances they supplanted.
The replacement chemicals are short-chain perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids and are part of the perfluoroalkyl substances class of man-made chemicals used in commercial products and industrial processes.
This class of chemicals is used in automotive and electronic applications as well as construction and industrial processing.
What the team of international scientists discovered when they started looking for the prevalence of these new chemicals in the environment is that there was a lot of it, and it wasn’t degrading.
Specifically, high levels of the chemicals were found ensconced in the ice sheets of the Arctic.
“Our measurements provide the first long-term record of these chemicals, which have all increased dramatically over the past few decades,” Young said. “Our work also showed how these industrial sources contribute to the levels in the ice caps.”
The chemicals can travel far distances and often end up in lakes, rivers, and streams, causing irremediable contamination in these places while hurting the health of freshwater invertebrates like worms and crustaceans.
The chemicals are small enough to escape water filtration processes meaning trace amounts have been discovered in human blood, as well as fruits and vegetables.
Finally, the chemicals have shown to accumulate at alarming rates in the Arctic Circle. While the researchers are quick to say they do not want to criticize the Montreal Protocol or undue prohibitions enacted there, it is important to reckon with unintended consequences of any environmental policy.