Managing the health and/or the environmental safety is thus more a matter of managing quantitatively and globally a risk rather than focusing on the intrinsic properties of chemicals. It is not always easy for scientists from regulating bodies or industry to convince about this because often the public perception or understanding of a dangerous property is often simpler and greater than that the perception of a real level of risk.
For example, in case of an accident or technical incident, it is more "dangerous" to be in an airplane high in the sky rather than sitting in car but, although everybody knows that quantitatively the probability or the risk of car accidents is much higher, most people remains more impressed by the danger that represent airplane accidents.
A chemical with a very dangerous intrinsic property may also contribute negligibly to a risk when its contribution is compared to the global risk of this kind produced by other sources. For example, the contribution of atmospheric emissions of HF, a very "strong" acid to acid rain is relatively negligible when compared with the contributions of other and less strong acids like nitric and sulphuric acids.
In some circumstances, it may even happen that the use of a chemical with a more dangerous property can even decrease a health or environmental risk if its use contribute to quantitatively reduce significantly the global sources of the same risk.
The challenge is thus to determine the relative risk and thus the quantitative contribution of each potential source to the greenhouse effect increase and identify the most efficient means to manage efficiently the significant reduction of this global risk but without creating other risks.
Stabilising the global emissions means neither a phase-out nor even a phase-down of specific compounds. Indeed, governments have recognized that HFCs are important alternatives to replace CFCs and HCFCs, and acknowledged that HFCs production will continue to increase, as long as there will be CFCs to be replaced. The general objective being to avoid an increase of the global warming effect , the energy (and thus CO2 emissions) saved through the efficiency of some products can be traded against any direct contribution.
In the Kyoto Protocol context , HFCs are being treated as one of a 'basket' of greenhouse gases for these trades.
To help consumers around the world to play their part by changing purchasing decisions in key sectors for their health and welfare, industry had to find technical solutions to this serious problem - what alternative to propose i.e. to the refrigeration and air conditioning industry to replace the widespread use of chemicals which had so many beneficial chemical properties. Indeed, the refrigeration and air conditioning industry, which used CFCs as refrigerants, was just one of the industries which faced this problem.
They were developed to this end by the fluorochemical producers and brought to the market in unprecedent time. Despite the tight deadlines imposed by the new regulations these products are now amongst the chemicals THE MOST RIGOROUSLY TESTED FOR THEIR HEALTH, SAFETY AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT .
With regards to their toxicological evaluation, international programmes tested thoroughly the various HFCs and demonstrated in general their high safety, their low level of toxicity ande of environmental impact.
This does not help to accelerate the process of CFC phase-out and there is still a high level of CFC use in Europe. It is vital that the facts are objectively and responsibly communicated to ensure that informed decisions are made, allowing to maximise safety, health and environmental performance whilst meeting some essential society's needs such as the cold chain involved in food preservation and the eco-efficient insulation of buildings.
HFCs have been demonstrated to offer a broad range of combined benefits, probably more than any other alternative : HFCs are non-flammable, of very low toxicity, do not contribute to photochemical smog and are highly energy efficient thus minimising the greenhouse emissions due to the energy consumption during the life time of the appliance.
HFCs will contribute no more than 1-2% to manmade global warming by the middle of the next century, and that is if we assume a worst case in which not only that industry stands still and uses the same refrigerants for the next 60 years, but also that emissions remain at their historically high levels.
The fact is that, as HCFCs where in a transitional phase, HFCs are now a vital and safe solution to the challenging environmental issue that ever hit mankind : the ozone layer preservation and its recovery. without HFCs, we would not be able to phase out CFCs as quickly while maintaining the vital role refrigeration and air conditioning play in our society. .
All these facts on HFCs show that they are part of the solution, not of the problem.
International Governmental Conferences and Meetings around the world have acknowledged the products of the HFCs family as important replacements for CFCs and the HCFCs in their most important applications including refrigeration, air conditioning and insulation foam blowing agents. Even if some countries expressed their intention to phase them out on the sole basis of their intrinsic global warming potential, there is no national or international regulation in place yet.
In brief, when evaluated on the appropriate criteria, the HFCs show a clean bill of health from Cradle to grave.
A good refrigerator is thus the appliance which provide the best service with the minimal use of resources and impact on the safety of persons or on the integrity of the environment. This implies the use of the best possible refrigerant system.
it has no impact on the ozone layer
it does not represent a risk for the safety of the user (i.e; maintenance personal) or the public.
it contribute to the best possible "eco-efficiency" of the appliance in which it is used (ex : a cooling machine) in order to minimize its environmental impact, i.e. on the greenhouse effect and climate change essentially due to the energy consumption and associated C02 emissions of the appliance throughout its lifetime.
It should be technically sound to deliver reliable and cost-effective service.
Originally dangerous refrigerants like Hydrocarbons or Ammonia were the only available refrigerants.
To resolve these issues, CFCs and later on HFCs were developed, since they were particularly safe and energy efficient, in refrigeration and in insulation performance.
Coming back to dangerous refrigeration systems would be meaningful only if this would bring a significant benefit to the environment
Given the lack of benefit from the use in refrigerators of hydrocarbons for the global warming impact point of view, why significantly increase the risk by introducing millions hydrocarbons sources instead of suppressing this risk simply from the liability point of view ?
Despite comprehensive safety measures bound to its toxic risk, hydrocarbons releases are not uncommon and human injuries and also fatalities are regularly reported .- already with common lighters- in each country all over the world. Such releases also regularly leads to evacuation and even sometimes to panic.
The problem is that there is a lack of standards governing the safety of use of flammable refrigerants. In some countries like France they are simply forbidden in public areas
Of course leakages can happen with HFCs, but since HFCs are safe even at very high concentrations, the health risk is very low.
In refrigeration applications for example, leakage rates for new HFC systems, which are now generally of a much higher /design standard than CFC systems, are significantly much lower than was the case with CFCs. With technological progress these rates are continuing to improve. HFC systems are now matching the low leakage rates which are mandatory - for safety reasons - for alternative hydrocarbon and ammonia systems. This makes both environmental and economic sense.
As the use of hydrocarbons in low capacity refrigeration is very recent, few hydrocarbon accidents have been reported up to now, but it must be reminded that both fire and explosion should be expected , and that some recent cases have recently attracted a broad attention of the informed/ interested experts.
Of course leakages can happen with HFCs, but since HFCs are safe even at very high concentrations, the health risk is very low. Cases where human consequences were observed are exceptional and were not due to to toxicity but simply to an asphyxia in confined spaces where the leaked HFC replaced the oxygen . The real consequence associated with a local HFCs leak is therefore the accidental release of a gas whose quantitative contribution as such to the greenhouse effectis completely insignificant.
It can also be underlined the residence time of HFCs in the atmosphere is much shorter than the residence time of CO2 (above 500 years !) and thus that the impact of an accidental release is furthermore relatively limited in time.
If modern systems are /designed and maintained to keep leakage to the minimal levels demanded by regulation for the proper containment of potentially hazardous refrigerants such as hydrocarbons and ammonia, then these same systems contain HFCs so that they cannot leak and contribute in any way to global warming. Containment of non toxic, non flammable and more energy efficient (thus less CO2 producers over the lifetime of the material) - Responsible Refrigeration - is the challenge and the real answer.
It must also be noted that potential liabilities issues progressively introduced in the EU legislation will strongly favour the use of safe HFCs versus hydrocarbons and ammonia.
It was always known there would be no technical panacea for the CFC substitution that a number of different solutions would be required and the market would therefore fragment. This has happened in Europe in the domestic refrigeration market, for example, where hydrocarbons are being used as well as, or in place of, HFCs. The reverse is true in the USA where hydrocarbons are not used in domestic systems because of flammability concerns.
For every application, it is important that the user makes an accurate and global assessment of the safety, health and environmental requirements and balances these against cost and technical performance, using this equation to assess all of the options. It is only in this way that an informed decision can be made about the most appropriate system to use.
So propane is only explosive if it is emitted, ammonia is only toxic if it is emitted and HFCs are only greenhouse gases if they are released into the atmosphere.
Provided people are given facts rather than emotion, they can make informed, responsible decisions about future safety, health and environmental impact. As governments around the world acknowledge, facts demonstrate that HFCs and the many associated industrial sectors have a vital role to play in this future particularly for such essential aspects as food preservation and air conditioning in the many places where extreme climate conditions make normal life and feeding very difficult.