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Dr. Mario Molina: His Legacy, Our Inspiration

Dr. Mario Molina died on October 7, 2020. His is not a household name. But he left behind a giant legacy and inspiring case study about solving global environmental crises.

Molina, who was born and raised in Mexico and moved to the U.S. to earn a PhD in physical chemistry from UC Berkeley, became a postdoc in Sherwood Rowland’s chemistry lab at UC Irvine in the early 1970’s. There, they embarked on a quest to understand what happened to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a class of chemicals used as aerosol propellants, solvents, refrigerants and more, when they were released into the atmosphere. Their work, propelled by Molina’s innovative and dogged lab methods, resulted in identifying the human-made CFCs as a primary cause in reducing the concentration of ozone in the stratosphere, the upper layer of earth’s atmosphere.

This “ozone hole” as it came to be known, which caused UVB radiation to penetrate the stratosphere and reach the earth, was one of the first acknowledged human-caused global environmental disruptions. The impacts of increased UVB reaching the earth’s surface are significant—increased cases of skin cancer, disruption of plant growth, reductions in ocean phytoplankton that are the base of the marine food chain and increased deterioration of materials exposed to sunlight.

Twenty years after their discovery, Molina and Rowland, along with the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. But Molina and Rowland did not just discover the relationship of CFCs to ozone depletion; they became activists for the control and elimination of CFCs and other ozone depleting compounds (ODCs). Their work and the efforts of other activists, countries and even companies led to President Reagan signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty phasing out the use of CFCs and other ODCs. Notably, it was the U.S., under the leadership of the Reagan State Department, that was a key leader in the successful negotiations over the treaty and it was Reagan that urged the Senate to ratify the treaty promptly as a signal to other nations to get onboard. Senate ratification followed Reagan’s quick signing on a voice vote with no opposition. Of the 39 cosponsors of the resolution of ratification, 10 were Republicans.

My first professional job was in the Chemical Control Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters. Fresh out of graduate school in 1980, I was assigned to the team developing regulations for the control of ODCs. The EPA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Carter acted quickly following publication of key papers in 1973 and 1974 describing the relationship of CFCs and related compounds to the depletion of the ozone layer. The agencies initially banned aerosol uses and then contracted with the RAND Corporation to analyze innovative ways of controlling and ultimately eliminating all other uses—uses that were much more deeply embedded in the American economy inside durable consumer goods (refrigerators, freezers, air conditioning units) and in manufacturing (solvents for electronics and military equipment).

Dupont, the major manufacturer of CFCs, organized opposition to regulating ozone depleting chemicals and went on a crusade against using innovative incentives for replacement substances. The company asked all of its customers who use CFCs to submit comments opposing any regulations, which resulted in over 10,000 comments to EPA, a record number at that point. One of my job responsibilities was to read and catalog incoming comments. My favorite was submitted by the owner of an air conditioning service and repair business based in Texas. Paraphrasing the closing remark in his comment, he argued that regulating CFCs would be equivalent to a “one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

Before EPA could issue a draft regulation, Reagan trounced Carter in the 1980 election and all work stopped on the ODC regulations shortly before Reagan took office. While I had some work duties, the new EPA administrator, Ann Gorsuch, made it clear that new regulations were not on the Reagan administration’s agenda and that relaxation and elimination of regulations would be the focus. My time at EPA was up and I left in the summer of 1981.

In the period when EPA wasn’t moving all that quickly on the issue, some local governments were taking action. One was the City of Irvine in Orange County, California, a county not known for being progressive on environmental issues. The City passed a local ordinance restricting the use of CFCs within the City limits and created a Director of Environmental Affairs position with the responsibility of figuring out how to implement the ordinance. I was the person they hired. Irvine got a great deal of attention, partly because it was a planned community (population at the time was about 120,000) and partly because the community was perceived as primarily a white bread bedroom community. However, the Irvine Co., which created the initial planned community, had astutely incorporated a significant amount of industrial and commercial property with the goal of having a wide variety of jobs in relatively close proximity to residents. Few people knew that what appeared to be light industrial properties with “clean” business occupants was in reality contributing an estimated 3% of the total U.S. emissions of ozone depleting compounds in the late 1980’s. Irvine’s industrial base was heavy in electronics, military equipment and weapons, biomedical products and other users of CFCs as solvents and other ODCs as sterilization agents.

When I came to Irvine in early 1990, the City was looking to have these businesses find alternative ways of making their products and make steady progress towards elimination of CFCs and the other restricted substances. I was greeted by the City’s CFC advisory committee, on which sat Sherwood Rowland! I called on “Sherry” and his colleagues regularly in developing the implementation program. It didn’t take long for the City to begin making progress on reducing emissions. After I left at the end of 1992, EPA adopted regulations that superseded Irvine’s ordinance and continued the march towards elimination. DuPont got on the band wagon stopping production of CFCs and investing in alternative refrigerants and solvents. Today, about 98% of ODC use in the U.S. has been eliminated.

Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland never stopped arguing for action on the ozone depletion problem and they also called for action on global climate change. They and the scientists who worked with them and followed them have made a difference in the world. It is possible to address global environmental problems, it is possible to gain the consent of nations in a joint effort to save the planet and it is possible for political parties and politicians who do not typically share perspectives on the environment to coalesce around the need for action on a global threat.

I never met Mario Molina. I wish I could have shaken his hand and thanked him as I did with Sherry when I first met him in 1990. But I very much appreciate that Mario is just one of so many immigrants to this country who have made the U.S., and the world, a better place.

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