Hydrofluorocarbons: Super Greenhouse Gas in Your Kitchen & Bathroom

Making changes to heal the hole in the ozone layer that developed over Antarctica in the 1980s is one of the great achievements of the past quarter-century. Humans paid attention to the growing threat of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), responded with global policy, and the ozone layer has partially recovered. But American household and commercial cleaning product companies have embraced another greenhouse gas as an aerosol propellant, hydrofluorocarbon 152A, which accelerates global warming.

A variety of products sold to consumers in the United States contain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) despite a recent global treaty to ban the substance. A “super greenhouse gas,” HFC 152A represents a growing threat to the planet’s climate.

Since the Montreal Protocol, a United Nations treaty that banned ozone-depleting CFCs and dozens of other ozone-depleting chemicals in 1987, the ozone hole — which is really an area of ozone centered over the south pole that becomes too thin to reflect the sun’s radiation — has stabilized. The depleted region of ozone reached its peak in 2006 at 27-million kilometers. Although CFCs are still detected, the Montreal Protocol has been largely effective at stopping the advance of ozone thinning.

By 2019, use of chemicals banned by the Montreal Protocol had been reduced by 98%, the United Nations reported. Treaties can be very effective climate policy.

NASA graph showing annual records of ozone hole area and the minimum density of ozone in the atmosphere

Annual records of ozone hole area and the minimum density of ozone in the atmosphere, measured in Dobson Units that represent 0.01 mm of thickness in the ozone layer. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In 2018, CFC levels spiked due to illegal activity and the ozone hole expanded to 85% of its 2006 size. There is still much work to be done to eliminate CFCs and close the ozone hole.

Then Came HFC 152A

Hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) were introduced as a safer alternative to CFCs in the 1990s. HFC 152A, a popular propellant, was believed to be better because it did not bond to and disrupt ozone stability. But that assumption has been proved wrong.

“HFCs are not as bad as CFCs,” Nathan Borgford-Powell, Scientific Advisory Panel and Science Affairs Coordinator at the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, wrote in email to Earth911, “CFCs are both ozone depleting and super greenhouse gases. HFCs are just super greenhouse gases.” He pointed out that personal care companies were among the first to eliminate CFCs in the 1980s.

HFC 152A has replaced the CFC-based propellants in hair spray, antiperspirants, disinfectants, and cleaning products despite their long-lived impact on the environment. HFC 152 is frequently touted as an improvement because it does not have a large impact on the ozone layer. Instead, it contributes to poor air quality and atmospheric warming, remaining in the atmosphere for as long as two decades. As a result, HFC emissions increased by 23% between 2012 and 2016 alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion.

“Aerosol deoderants were almost entirely switched to pumps, sticks, and roll-ons [even before the Montreal Protocol existed],” Borgford-Powell said. “It strikes me

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