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Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)


SPRI Emission Reporting Threshold
1.00 Kg/yr Pollutant Emissions to Air
This sheet is a generic summary, designed to give the reader a basic level of background information about the substance in question. Great care has been taken to represent as effectively and correctly as possible the broad range of (not necessarily consistent) information which is available from a variety of sources. The reader must accept therefore that this sheet has no legal status and cannot be relied upon in any legal proceedings. SEPA disclaims any responsibility or liability whatsoever for errors and omissions in this sheet.
What is it?
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are a large group of compounds, whose structure is very close to that of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), but including one or more hydrogen atoms. Under normal conditions, HCFCs are gases or liquids which evaporate easily. They are generally fairly stable and unreactive. HCFCs do not usually dissolve in water, but do dissolve in organic (carbon-containing) solvents. HCFCs are chemically similar to Hydrobromofluorocarbons (HBFCs), Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Halons and therefore display some similar properties, though they are much less stable and persistent. HCFCs are also part of a group of chemicals known as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
What is it used for?
Since the use of CFCs has been phased out, HCFCs have replaced them for some applications. In particular, HCFCs are now used as refrigerants (in refrigerators, freezers and air conditioning systems) and also in insulative foams. The use of HCFCs as solvents is now being phased out in developed countries and has been banned in the UK since 2001. Their use in general is also being phased out.
Where does it come from?
The most significant releases of HCFCs occur as leakage from cooling applicances which contain them, both during their manufacture, use and disposal. There are not thought to be any natural sources of HCFCs to the environment.
How might it affect the environment?
HCFCs are unlikely to have any impact on the environment in the immediate vicinity of their release. As VOCs, they may be slightly involved in reactions to produce ozone, which can cause damage to plants and materials on a local scale. At a global level however, releases of HCFCs have serious environmental consequences. Although not as stable and therefore not so persistent in the atmosphere as CFCs, HBFCs or Halons, they can still end up in the higher atmopshere (stratosphere) where they can destroy the ozone layer, thus reducing the protection it offers the earth from the sun's harmful UV rays. HCFCs also contribute to Global Warming (through "the Greenhouse Effect"). Although the amounts emitted are relatively small, they have a powerful warming effect (a very high "Global Warming Potential").
How might exposure to it affect human health?
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons enter the body primarily by inhalation of air containing hydrochlorofluorocarbons, but can also enter the body by accidental ingestion of hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or by dermal contact with hydrochlorofluorocarbons. Inhalation of air containing high levels of some hydrochlorofluorocarbons may lead to health effects including chest tightness, irritation of the respiratory tract, and breathing difficulties. Exposure to high levels of some hydrochlorofluorocarbons may also affect the nervous system, heart, liver, kidney and reproductive system. Ingestion of some hydrochlorofluorocarbons may cause nausea, headache, dizziness and disorientation. Dermal contact with some hydrochlorofluorocarbons may cause skin irritation, dermatitis and frostbite. Hydrochlorofluorocarbons are involved in the destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer resulting in increased exposure to UV radiation which is known to cause skin cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has not designated hydrochlorofluorocarbons as a group in terms of their carcinogenicity. However, exposure to hydrochlorofluorocarbons at normal background levels is unlikely to have any adverse effect on human health.
What steps are being taken to limit the potential impacts?
Following the United Nations Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the use of HCFCs has been phased out in the UK (including Scotland) and also in the majority of other developed countries. Due to the fact that HCFCs are not considered to be as damaging as CFCs, HBFCs or Halons, the process of phasing their use out is not as strict and requires that, internationally, they are no longer used after 2030. The related EC Regulation 2037/2000 requires that in Europe their use is banned after 2015. Releases of HCFCs are also controlled through the UK Pollution, Prevention and Control (PPC) Regulations and, as VOCs, levels of HCFCs in air are regulated through the UK National Air Quality Strategy. The main international legislation regulating levels of VOCs such as HCFCs is the UN/ECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the Basel Convention on the transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous wastes.