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Chlorofluorocarbons

Chlorofluorocarbons, commonly known as CFCs, are a group of man-made compounds containing chlorine, fluorine and carbon. They are not found anywhere in nature. The production of CFCs began in the 1930s for the purpose of refrigeration. Since then they have been extensively utilised as propellants in aerosols, as blowing agents in foam manufacture and in air conditioning. There are no removal processes or sinks for CFCs in the lowest part of the atmosphere called the troposphere. As a result they are transported up into the stratosphere, between 10 to 50 km above the Earth's surface, where they are broken down by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun, releasing free chlorine atoms which cause significant ozone depletion.

Although the amounts of CFCs in the atmosphere are very small, measured in parts per trillion (million million), they do contribute significantly to the enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect, because they are very good at trapping heat. Molecule for molecule some CFCs are thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases.

Since the dangers caused by CFCs to the ozone layer were first identified, their use has gradually been phased out, according to international agreements made in Montreal, Canada, in 1987. However, CFCs have long lifetimes in the atmosphere before they are broken down by sunlight, and consequently they will continue to enhance the greenhouse effect well into the 21st century.

Uses of CFCs