North American Countries Reinforce Their Capacities to Detect and Prevent Illegal Traffic of Ozone-Depleting Substances

The term “illegal traffic” is usually associated with illegal commerce in drugs or weapons, but it is difficult to imagine that applies also to bottles and cans containing chemical substances that have destructive affects on molecules 10 kilometers (six miles) above our heads.

Illegal trafficking of chemicals designated as “Ozone-Depleting Substances” (ODS) represents a grave menace, not only because the smuggler is not respecting laws and regulations, but especially because these substances destroy the ozone layer in the stratosphere that protects the surface of the Earth from excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can present a threat to our health and environment. Human exposure to excessive doses of UV radiation can cause skin cancer, render the immune system more vulnerable, and cause cataracts and other eye problems. As for repercussions on the environment, exposure to excessive amounts of UV radiation can result in a reduction in the quality and quantity of crops harvested, as well as affecting the bottom layers of the food web and, by extension, the entire trophic chain. Increased amounts of UV radiation also contribute to global warming and, therefore, cause adverse effects in tropical and arctic regions. [+]

In order to phase out and eventually eliminate the use of ODS, the governments of many nations negotiated and ratified (at present, 193 signatories) a multilateral environmental agreement (MEA)—the Montreal Protocol. The Protocol is considered an example of the most effective multilateral agreements if one can judge by the successful involvement of the signatory parties to compromise and then accomplish their goals.

In illegal trafficking of ODS, however, ignorance is the best ally of smugglers, since it can aid them to avoid being uncovered by Customs inspectors. They hide their illegal cargo or make use of false labels, bottles or cans in an attempt to make all appear “legal,” when it is not legal at all. That is why it is of the greatest importance to train the inspectors and officials in charge of manning customs and border crossing points.

In that regard, the Parties of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)—Canada, Mexico and the United States—have agreed to compile and make available, for environmental officials and inspectors at customs and border crossing points, a training course that attacks this illegal activity, which according to some estimates, represented some 20 percent of the world production of ODS in the mid-1990s.

According to the provisions of the Montreal Protocol, from 1 January 2010, no signatory country to that MEA should utilize chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), which are among the principal ODS. However, as is it easier to smuggle a bottle of gas than to replace and modernize equipment, a sizeable increase in the illegal trafficking of such substances is likely. Therefore, the CEC is calling on the agencies responsible for environmental enforcement, and inspections at customs and border crossings, to step up their fight against illegal ODS trade. For example, when an air conditioning system that uses CFC-12 (a gas that contributes to ozone layer depletion) needs to be refilled, a replacement bottle of it can be bought at the black market for US$30; however, replacing the equipment will cost up to $300, that is to say, ten times more the price of a single bottle. Truly, such a situation defies logic!

The course offered by the CEC, and which is intended to familiarize officials charged with customs and enforcement in the three countries with the smugglers’ most common modi operandi, constitutes a globally applicable training model. In fact, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will translate and adapt the content for training inspectors in the Central Asian region.

Currently, China, India and Venezuela are among those countries that still produce CFCs. Mexico ended its CFC production in September 2005, advancing by five years its promises under the Montreal Protocol. Canada and the United States ended their production of CFCs in 1995.

Felipe Adrián Vázquez Gálvez

ODS Policy and Regulations

This module is for anyone interested in the properties of ODS, and policies and regulations covering their control.



Acknowledgements [+]

This training was developed by the Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation was established under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC) to address environmental issues in North America from a continental perspective, with a particular focus on those arising in the context of liberalized trade.

The Secretariat wishes to thank the United Nations Environment Programme and the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States whose existing training materials serve as the basis for this work. The Secretariat also wishes to thank the many employees of Environment Canada, Customs Canada, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Customs and Border Protection, Mexico's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Mexico's Attorney General for Environmental Protection, Mexico's Customs Service and the United Nations Environment Programme whose reviews and comments helped move this pilot project to completion.