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A banned ozone-destroying chemical is being produced somewhere, but scientists can’t figure out where

Published May 17th, 2018 10:09AM EDT

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Scientists worked for years to prove that certain manmade chemicals were slowly eating away at the precious layer of ozone surrounding the planet and, one they did so, most developed countries agreed to stop using them. But worldwide environmental initiatives only work if countries keep their word, and scientists now suspect that a dangerous, ozone-eating chemical is still in production somewhere.

A new paper published in the journal Nature describes the ongoing problem. The chemical is tricholorofluoromethane, also called CFC-11, which should have been completely banned by 2010 thanks to the agreements reached in the Montreal Protocol. That international treaty went into effect in 1989, with countries promising to completely phase out the use of CFCs over following two decades. By 2010, scientists expected to begin seeing the positive impacts of the agreement, but what they saw instead has given them cause for concern.

By measuring the concentrations of CFC-11 reaching the atmosphere, the researchers have been able to calculate how much is being emitted down on the surface. The data shows that despite the majority of countries reporting their halt of the chemical’s production by 2006, CFC-11 emissions have actually increased year-over-year since 2012.

“The increase in emission of CFC-11 appears unrelated to past production,” the researchers write. “This suggests unreported new production, which is inconsistent with the Montreal Protocol agreement to phase out global CFC production by 2010.”

Put simply, someone (or perhaps several “someones”) has begun producing the chemical again in mass quantities despite the worldwide agreement to do exactly the opposite.

“We’re raising a flag to the global community to say, ‘This is what’s going on, and it is taking us away from timely recovery of the ozone layer,’” NOAA scientist Stephen Montzka, lead author of the work, said in a statement. “Further work is needed to figure out exactly why emissions of CFC-11 are increasing, and if something can be done about it soon.”

This is obviously pretty frustrating for scientists who have studied and tracked the progress of the ozone’s self-repair in the years since the worldwide agreement was reached. This is a problem that should have already been fixed, but now it seems researchers will have to track down who is responsible, and determine whether or not the culprit even realizes what they’re doing.

“In the end, we concluded that it’s most likely that someone may be producing the CFC-11 that’s escaping to the atmosphere,” Montzka said. “We don’t know why they might be doing that and if it is being made for some specific purpose, or inadvertently as a side product of some other chemical process.”