July 10 (UPI) -- An investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency suggests the Chinese foam industry is responsible for a sudden rise in CFC-11, an ozone eating chemical.
The rise in CFC-11 emissions was identified by NOAA chemists and detailed in the journal Nature last month. The findings, which identified East Asia as the likely source of the rise in emissions, compelled EIA researchers to suss out the culprit.
"We were shocked," Avipsa Mahapatra, climate change lead at EIA, told UPI. "It was outrageous that this chemical was still being emitted."
Though surprised, Mahapatra and her colleagues had a pretty good idea of where to look for the culprit.
Before they were banned by the Montreal Protocol for their role in carving out a hole in the ozone layer, CFC-11 and other chlorofluorocarbons were widely used as refrigerants and blowing agents for polyurethane foam insulation. China's polyurethane foam market is the largest in the world.
EIA researchers did what many do when they want to answer a question. They used the internet. Online searches revealed 25 factories manufacturing foam or selling the key ingredients used to make foam.
Investigators were able to talk to owners or operators at 21 of the factories. Of the 21 factories investigated by EIA, owners or operators at 18 of them freely admitted to using CFC-11.
"They were quite blasé about confirming the use of CFCs-11 in their white agent," Mahapatra said.
The white agent is a component used to make polyurethane foam, mostly used for insulation in the construction industry. The white agent features a variety of chemicals, including flame retardants and other additives, including CFC-11, which acts as a blowing agent.
China's foam industry isn't concentrated in a single province. The factories investigated by EIA are spread across the continent, their business fueled by China's booming housing and construction industry.
"The evidence gathered from conversations with multiple industry sources, including traders of CFC-11 and 18 different Chinese factories points to its widespread use in the foam blowing production industry as the primary source of the illegal emissions," EIA wrote in a report detailing their investigation.
In interviews with EIA researchers, factory owners and operators said they know the chemical is illegal but they continue to produce and use CFC-11 because it's cheap and it works -- and because they can get away with it.
Several operators told investigators they're rarely inspected, and if they are, factory workers can easily hide evidence of CFC-11.
"We hope the government of China will accept that this is a systemic problem and that major policy changes are necessary," Alexander von Bismarck, EIA executive director, told UPI in an email. "Occasionally showing up at occasional factories to have a look is clearly not working -- enforcement has to be intelligence-led, the same way you would approach any major organized criminal activity."
"China also needs to institute higher penalties across the supply chain. Those making and using foam need to be motivated to ask for the environmentally friendly alternatives," Von Bismarck said. "Currently that is not the case."
China isn't the only entity under pressure in the wake of EIA's investigation.
In recent years, the Montreal Protocol has been heralded as one of the few environmental success stories stories of the last 25 years. Reports showed the ozone hole was healing as levels of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere dropped.
"The Montreal protocol has been often lauded, but how it addresses this issue will determine whether it will continue be talked about as success moving forward," Mahapatra said.
Parties to the Montreal Protocol are meeting in Vienna, Austria, this week, and the latest revelations -- and how to respond -- are certain to be high on the agenda.
"From the moment these emissions were first detected, the parties to the Montreal Protocol have been in near constant communication with an intense focus on identifying the complete scope of any illegal production," Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said in a released statement. "Thankfully we have absolute support from all member states. This week, will be a critical moment for dialogue, resolve and action to ensure any illegal activities are fully investigated and urgently halted."