CHIBA – A type of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) whose production or import is banned in industrialized countries has been smuggled into Japan in large volumes from China and other developing countries where its manufacturing is still allowed, customs authorities and industry sources said Sunday.
CFCs are blamed for depleting the ozone layer and causing global warming. The smuggled products are being used as an auto refrigerant for outmoded vehicles, according to the sources.
More than 100,000 bottles of smuggled CFC-12, or dichlorodifluoromethane, have been circulating among Japanese maintenance service providers since last year, prompting authorities to launch investigations, they said.
The customs authorities and auto parts sellers believe several dozen to 1,000 cases containing 30 CFC-12 bottles each have so far been traded in Japan. The authorities said they are investigating several suspected smuggling channels in eastern, central and western Japan.
Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Japan banned domestic production and import of CFC-12 at the end of 1995, and only products already in stock had been circulating.
Japanese automakers had stopped using CFC-12 for air conditioning in newly produced vehicles by 1994, but the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates there are some 15 million vehicles that still use the substance as refrigerant at present.
Since last year, prices for the products have skyrocketed with the decline in stocks. A CFC bottle used to trade at several hundred yen but this summer it has fetched up to 5,000 yen in Tokyo and its vicinity, the industry sources said.
The protocol allows developing countries to introduce regulations on ozone-depleting substances some 10 years after industrialized countries due to technical and economic reasons.
China, which has to eradicate CFC-12 by 2010, produced 50,000 tons of the substance in 1997, accounting for some one-third of total global output.
The U.N. Environment Program estimates 20,000 to 30,000 tons of CFCs are secretly traded annually between industrialized and developing countries. The smuggling has drawn attention in Europe and the United States as an environment crime.
Products bearing labels in English have been used at auto service factories in Tokyo, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures since late last year while CFC-12 bottles believed to have been produced in China have been circulating in areas such as Gunma Prefecture since July.
Customs authorities in Narita airport in Chiba Prefecture arrested two used-car sales company officials in Nagoya in July on suspicion of smuggling CFC-12 bottles from Thailand by falsely claiming they were motor oil. It was the first arrest over CFC product smuggling.
The enforcement division of the Finance Ministry’s customs and tariff bureau suspect other CFC-12 bottles have also been smuggled to Japan in a similar way.
“I know they are smuggled products, but my customers will complain if we don’t have the stocks,” said an auto service factory manager in Chiba Prefecture.
Stashed in the corner of his plant were two boxes each containing 30 bottles of CFC-12. “The price (of the products) will rise further next year,” he said.
An auto repair parts dealer also in Chiba said he received a supply of 1,000 boxes of CFC-12 around April this year, all of which have been sold to his customers. He said his shop gets offers for supply of CFCs through fax or direct mail. CFCs used as refrigerant in outmoded vehicles leak constantly, requiring a refill. A source at a major auto parts manufacturing firm said the reason behind the still strong demand for CFCs may be the fact that many motorists have to drive outmoded vehicles due to the economic slump.
Environmentalist groups say the government should impose an outright ban on the use of CFCs, including those left over as domestic stocks.
Kohei Urano, Yokohama National University professor and expert on environmental safety issues, said smuggling of CFCs will continue as long as there is demand. The government needs to introduce measures encouraging users of outmoded vehicles to replace their air-conditioners with new products that do not use CFCs as refrigerant.
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