Children At Greatest Risk From Ozone Depletion

MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, September 16, 2003 (ENS) - The special vulnerability of children to the Sun's damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays is the theme of today's 16th anniversary of the global treaty that limits the emission of ozone depleting chemicals - the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. These substances are chemicals containing chlorine and bromine atoms, used primarily as refrigerants, fire suppressants, and fumigants.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today praised progress made under the Montreal Protocol, ratified by 184 countries, as “impressive,” with scientists reporting a decline in ozone depletion and the first signs of recovery following efforts to eliminate the destructive chemicals emitted by human activities.


Children are particularly vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation. (Photo courtesy Medical Journal of Australia)
But 66,000 people each year are dying from melanoma and other skin cancers, many due to the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and children are especially vulnerable, Annan recognized.

“While we may be gratified with the progress that has been made through international cooperation, we must not be satisfied until the preservation of the ozone layer is assured,” Annan said in his message marking today as International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.

"We cannot be complacent,” Annan cautioned. “The ozone layer remains depleted above the Antarctic and the Arctic, as well as in the midlatitudes of both hemispheres of the earth.

The Antarctic ozone hole has grown rapidly this year and as of September 9 covered some 27 million square kilometers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other UN agencies today warned that protecting children from skin cancers that are triggered by overexposure to UV radiation is a matter of urgency.

"As ozone depletion becomes more marked and as people around the world engage more in Sun seeking behavior, the risk of developing health complications from overexposure to UV radiation is becoming a substantial public health concern," said WHO Director General Dr. Lee Jong-wook at the agency's headquarters in Geneva.

"UV radiation is of particular concern because people are often unaware of the health risks. The effects of exposure often do not appear until many years later and overexposure to the Sun poses a risk to all populations, not just fair skinned ones," said Dr. Mike Repacholi, coordinator of WHO's Radiation and Environmental Health Unit.


Kugenuma Beach is the birthplace of Japanese beach volleyball. (Photo courtesy Kanagawa Prefectural Tourist Association)
"While most of the known melanomas included in the International Agency for Research on Cancer statistics occur in the industrialized world, this is not necessarily because only fair skinned populations are affected by UV radiation," said Dr. Repacholi.

"Given adequate reporting mechanisms, we would expect to see many more melanoma cases originating in developing countries. Moreover, cataract susceptibility has nothing to do with the skin type, and people living close to the equator are most likely to be affected," he said.

"We know that by reducing overexposure of children and adolescents to the Sun," said Dr. Lee, "we can substantially reduce the risk of contracting skin cancers, cataracts and other conditions which might only appear much later in life."

To help people around the world become more aware of the risks from exposure to UV radiation, and to take the measures to prevent overexposure, WHO's Intersun Project is today launching a School Sun Protection Package.

Three booklets make up the package - a guide for schools and teachers on why and how to develop effective sun education programs, practical teaching materials for primary school students, and evaluation materials to assess the effectiveness of primary school sun education programs.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said, "Recent scientific findings have shown that the ozone layer is on the road to recovery, but we must remain vigilant and more needs to be done before we can say that the problem is solved for good."

"The phaseout of the ozone depleting pesticide methyl bromide, combating the illegal trade in CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] and full implementation of the Montreal Protocol in developing countries are all issues that need to be tackled, Toepfer said. "Only then can we say that the sky above our heads will be safe for our children and their children to come."

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international organization with offices in London and Washington, warned today that the Montreal Protocol is at serious risk of being undermined by illegal trade and production of ozone depleting substances.

“We have found evidence of CFC smuggling in many parts of the world, particularly now in developing countries, where CFC phaseout schedules are beginning to be felt," said, EIA’s ozone layer campaigner Ezra Clark. "Much equipment exists in these countries which relies on CFCs, but the high cost of alternative chemicals creates a demand which is often satiated by illegal material.”

A further problem which could undermine the Montreal Protocol and delay the recovery of the ozone layer, Clark said, is the request by the United States to the Secretariat of the Montreal Protocol for exemptions allowing it to increase its use of the fumigant methyl bromide - one of the most potent ozone depleting chemicals still in widespread use.


Plant pathologist Daniel Chellemi (left) and organic grower Kevin O'Dare inspect the progress of a soil solarization treatment to replace methyl bromide in the cultivation of strawberries. (Photo courtesy USDA)
The Montreal Protocol meeting in Nairobi in November this year will decide whether to grant this controversial "critical use exemptions" to the United States.

Most ozone exists in the upper part of the atmosphere. This region, called the stratosphere, is more than 10 kilometers (six miles) above the Earth’s surface.

There, about 90 percent of atmospheric ozone is contained in the “ozone layer,” which shields us from harmful ultraviolet light from the Sun. Ozone in the stratosphere absorbs some of the Sun’s biologically harmful ultraviolet radiation. Because of this beneficial role, stratospheric ozone is considered good ozone.

By contrast, ozone at Earth’s surface, known as smog, is formed from pollutants emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels. It is considered bad ozone because it can be harmful to humans and plant and animal life.

The initial step in the depletion of stratospheric ozone by human activities is the emission of ozone depleting gases containing chlorine and bromine at Earth’s surface, explains the Montreal Protocol Secretariat in a report reviewed by the 74 scientists who attended the Panel Review Meeting for the June 2002 ozone assessment in Switzerland.

Most of these ozone depleting gases accumulate in the lower atmosphere because they are unreactive and do not dissolve readily in rain or snow. Eventually, the emitted gases are transported to the stratosphere where they are converted to more reactive gases containing chlorine and bromine. These more reactive gases then participate in reactions that destroy ozone.

Finally, when air returns to the lower atmosphere, these reactive chlorine and bromine gases are removed from Earth’s atmosphere by rain and snow, the report explains.

Despite the ban on production of refrigerant gases containing chlorine for domestic use since January 1995, these CFCs are still produced in Europe for export to developing countries.

“There is strong evidence of surplus global production, and EU produced CFCs ending up on the black market in developing countries," Clark said.

"While we welcome the recent voluntary reductions in production of CFCs announced by the EU, we feel stronger actions are needed, and the Montreal Protocol should take more concrete steps to accelerate the phaseout of these harmful ozone destroying chemicals.”