Does Freon break down over time?

Freon is the trade name for a group of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants that were commonly used in air conditioning units and refrigerators starting in the 1930s. However, research in the 1970s revealed that Freon was damaging the ozone layer, leading to international action to phase it out. This raises the question: does Freon naturally break down over time, or does it persist in the atmosphere?

The Stability of Freon

Freon molecules contain strong carbon-chlorine and carbon-fluorine bonds that make them very stable and resistant to decomposition. Under normal atmospheric conditions, models suggest that Freon can persist in the atmosphere for decades to centuries before breaking down.

For example, trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11), one of the most common Freon refrigerants, has an estimated atmospheric lifetime of 45 years. This means roughly half of CFC-11 molecules released into the air will still be there 45 years later if they are not actively removed from the atmosphere.

Other types of Freon have even longer estimated atmospheric lifetimes. CFC-12 has a lifetime of 100 years, while HCFC-22 lasts for 12 years and HFC-134a for 14 years. The stability and persistence of Freon is what made it both useful as a refrigerant and problematic for the ozone layer.

How Freon Breaks Down

While Freon is highly stable in normal atmospheric conditions, it can very slowly break down through indirect photolysis reactions triggered by sunlight.

First, high-energy ultraviolet rays from the sun hit oxygen molecules (O2) in the stratosphere, splitting them into reactive oxygen atoms (O). The oxygen atoms then collide with ozone (O3), splitting the ozone into an oxygen molecule (O2) and another oxygen atom (O).

The reactive oxygen atoms can then hit Freon molecules, splitting off the chlorine or fluorine atoms. The liberated chlorine and fluorine atoms catalyze further breakdown of ozone in chain reactions.

However, the rates of these breakdown reactions are slow, so without active removal, only about 1-10% of Freon decomposes per decade in the stratosphere. The most effective way to eliminate Freon is through management policies to stop its release rather than relying on natural breakdown.

Factors That Affect Breakdown Rate

Several factors influence the natural breakdown rate of Freon in the atmosphere:

  • Sunlight exposure – More intense and prolonged sunlight exposure in the stratosphere speeds up photolysis reactions that break down Freon.
  • Freon concentration – Higher concentrations of Freon lead to more collisions with reactive oxygen atoms, increasing breakdown rates.
  • Temperature – Warmer stratospheric temperatures increase kinetic activity and rates of photolysis reactions that degrade Freon.
  • Catalyzing surfaces – Interactions with mineral dust particles and polar stratospheric clouds provide surfaces that can catalyze Freon breakdown.

However, despite these factors, the overall natural breakdown rate of Freon remains slow compared to human-caused emissions during peak Freon production in the 1980s. Active policy efforts to reduce Freon use have been more important than reliance on natural decomposition.

Freon Persistence in the Atmosphere

Once Freon refrigerants were released into the atmosphere, most persisted for years or decades before breaking down due to their chemical stability. Observations showed atmospheric concentrations increasing through the 1970s and peaking between 1992-1994.

Even after the 1987 Montreal Protocol banned CFC production, atmospheric concentrations of most Freon types continued to rise before peaking and starting a gradual decline. This lag was due to the ongoing release of Freon from existing equipment and its slow breakdown rate.

For example, atmospheric CFC-11 concentrations peaked at 268 parts per trillion (ppt) in 1994 before declining to 232 ppt by 2018. CFC-12 peaked at 533 ppt in 2002 and only declined to 528 ppt by 2018. The persistence of these chemicals demonstrates the need to actively eliminate Freon releases rather than just relying on natural processes.

Freon Persistence in Older Equipment

Freon can also persist for years in older refrigerators, air conditioners, and foam insulation that still contain CFCs and HCFCs. These reserves are gradually released through leaks and when equipment is disposed of improperly. Ongoing releases from old equipment banks delay the recovery of the ozone layer.

One 2002 study estimated that around 65,000 metric tons of CFCs still remained in old equipment and insulation in developed countries. Developing countries likely had even larger reserves locked up in outdated technology. Proper disposal and recycling is necessary to remove these lingering Freon supplies.

The Effect of Freon Persistence on the Ozone Layer

The slow natural breakdown of Freon has contributed to prolonged ozone layer depletion over recent decades. Ozone-destroying chlorine and bromine levels in the stratosphere remained high into the 2000s due to the ongoing presence of Freon.

At its worst in the late 1990s, ozone depletion allowed up to 10% more ultraviolet B radiation to reach Earth’s surface, increasing risks of skin cancer and cataracts in humans along with damage to animals, plants, and plastics.

Modeling suggests the ozone layer will not fully recover back to 1980 levels until around 2050 for mid-latitudes and 2065 for polar regions. The persistence of CFCs and HCFCs in the atmosphere is a major reason recovery is taking so long despite the phase-out of Freon.

Arctic Ozone Depletion

Ozone depletion has been especially severe seasonally over the Arctic due to Freon persistence. In cold winters, persistent CFCs and HCFCs help drive very low ozone levels through reactions on polar stratospheric clouds.

In March 2011, the Arctic ozone layer suffered a record loss, with ozone concentrations falling to 40% below normal. This was due to unusually long-lasting cold conditions and lingering Freon. Arctic ozone depletion is expected to continue for several more decades due to the stability of Freon remnants.

Steps Taken to Speed Up Freon Breakdown

Given the slow natural breakdown of Freon, additional steps have been necessary to remove it from the atmosphere and speed up ozone layer recovery. These have included:

  • Banning Freon production – The 1987 Montreal Protocol banned CFC production and set timelines to phase out HCFCs.
  • Recovering and destroying CFC banks – Programs to recover Freon from old equipment and foam for safe incineration.
  • Accelerating chemical reactions – Proposed technology using radio waves or lasers to accelerate Freon breakdown in the stratosphere.
  • Ocean degradation – Natural breakdown of Freon can occur more rapidly in ocean waters.

While natural Freon breakdown is very slow, stopping future emissions has allowed atmospheric concentrations to peak and decline. However, active removal efforts remain necessary due to the persistence of Freon banks and ongoing leaks.


In summary, Freon refrigerants are highly stable compounds that break down very slowly under normal atmospheric conditions. The estimated lifetimes of major Freon types range from 12 years for HCFC-22 up to 100 years for CFC-12. This persistence allowed atmospheric concentrations to rise through the late 20th century before peaking in the 1990s.

The slow natural breakdown of Freon has contributed to prolonged depletion of the ozone layer. Despite the Montreal Protocol phasing out production, lingering Freon concentrations will delay ozone recovery over polar regions until mid-century. Accelerating Freon breakdown using chemical or photolytic methods has been proposed but not yet proven effective. For now, reducing emissions and actively destroying Freon banks remain the priority for speeding ozone layer healing.

Atmospheric Lifetimes of Major Freon Types
Freon Type Lifetime (years)
CFC-11 45
CFC-12 100
CFC-113 85
HCFC-22 12
HFC-134a 14

1 thought on “Does Freon break down over time?”

  1. I am not certain all of the claims you make in the above article are correct. Freon does not degrade and does not get low unless there is a leak.


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