Eleven years after the Montreal Protocol banned the manufacture and export of items producing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in much of the developed world, the last legal supplies of Freon—a CFC-producing gas used in refrigerators and auto air conditioners—are running low. The result? A thriving black market that, as Tomas Kellner reports in The Sciences (Sept./Oct. 1998), is second only to the drug trade. (The profit margin, ounce for ounce, is twice that of cocaine.) "Given the scant attention Freon smuggling has gotten from the press, especially compared with the war on drugs, the entire issue may sound like a mere bureaucratic problem . . . but the truth is that CFCs, in their own way, are more dangerous than any drug," Kellner writes. "CFCs endanger entire populations."
Some 66 million cars built before 1994—when air-conditioning units were equipped to use Freon substitutes—are still on the road, Kellner explains, and many owners opt for the cheaper Freon refill when their a/c goes out. So service stations are anxious to maintain a supply of Freon for those customers—and smugglers are happy to oblige. "Once you smuggle it in, there is no way to detect that it has been smuggled," says a U.S. Customs official. Still, the government has put 17 Freon traffickers behind bars since 1996 and collected more than $38 million in fines and forfeited assets. And it looks like the War on Freon has just begun. "We will find you, we will shut you down, and we will convict you," Janet Reno announced after a major bust in 1997. "We will not permit you to endanger our ecosystem and our children's future for the sake of a few dollars."
From The Sciences, 655 Madison Av., New York, NY 10021. Subscriptions: $21/yr. (6 issues)