ON SEPTEMBER 26, 1974, a headline on the front page of The New York Times announced: “Tests Show Aerosol Gases May Pose Threat to Earth.” The trouble, the story said, began with synthesized chemicals called fluorocarbons. Some scientists believed that these manmade substances would destroy a large part of the atmosphere’s ozone layer. The results would likely be dire. No longer adequately shielded by ozone from the harshest of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, human beings might suffer an epidemic of skin cancers. No one could say what might happen to the plants and animals of the earth, but it seemed clear that an altered ozone layer would mean a greatly altered planet.
Looking back eight years afterward, a scientist involved in research on ozone remarked, “An abstract scientific theory made the front page of The New York Times, and six months later it was a subplot on the Archie Bunker show.” The fluorocarbon theory proposed that global catastrophe could have a homely, even
frivolous source, and perhaps that is why the story traveled very widely. Practically everyone in the industrialized world used fluorocarbons, which had long been thought to rank among the safest of manmade chemicals. Colorless, nearly odorless, fluorocarbons are present in virtually every modern system of refrigeration. They are used as solvents and as foaming agents for making such items as disposable coffee cups and rigid insulation. In 1974, fluorocarbons propelled the contents from half of the roughly 2 billion aerosol cans being sold in America. The headlines focused on this last application. Was the world really going to end with the hissing of cans of deodorant? In contemplation of like questions, many commentators in America could not restrain their mordant glee. The prospects were just too wonderfully ironic. In the early days of the alarm, some scientists went before Congress and on the basis of meager evidence drew the worst of imaginable conclusions. One, for example, said that the continued production of fluorocarbons “could drive life on earth back to where it was hundreds of millions of years ago.” Hyperbole was rampant.