Specialty Gas Report looks at the rise - and fall - of inferior refrigerants

Last year, the Southern Africa Compressed Gases Association (SACGA) issued a warning about the rise of inferior refrigerants. Unscrupulous manufacturers are adding alternative products to R134a and various blends, resulting in product that is out of spec and well below acceptable standards. In South Africa, some importers are not equipped to carry out the necessary quality checks, causing importers to unknowingly introduce inferior product to the market.

But inferior refrigerants entering the gases market are not just a concern facing South Africa; SGR understands this is a problem affecting every continent.
A number of substitutes for the refrigerant R134a are believed to have entered the marketplace. An SACGA member had QC tests carried out at an independent laboratory, the association explains, and found various combinations of ‘cocktail refrigerants’ being sold as pure R134a. In some cases R12 was identified within certain cocktails, which has been banned in South Africa for some years now.

In addition to an increase in inferior blends, product has been seen whereby the blend ratios are not compliant with AHRI 700 standards (Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute), thought to be mainly due to higher prices of raw materials such as R125 and the ongoing use of cheaper alternative blend components including CFCs.

Compressor failure, systems failing to cool as required, or corrosion in the compressor are cited as just some of the problems that could occur if a sub-standard or out-of-specification product is used.

Suspect products are often difficult to identify, as the packaging is identical to that of the genuine quality-controlled products. Insisting on product specification sheets and/or Product Certificate of Analysis and a Safety Data sheet (SDS) is therefore essential when purchasing refrigerants.

Serious threat
In addition to the R134a substitutes that found their way into South Africa, several other cases that came to light in North America and Europe highlighted the problems the industry is facing. Earlier this year one leading US manufacturer, DuPont, repeated warnings of the dangers of knowingly buying or using counterfeit refrigerants.

In the US, companies and government bodies have been working in close cooperation particularly in respect of R134a - widely used in the automotive and air conditioning and refrigeration industry - which has, according to some reports, been illegally blended and found to contain R40 (methyl chloride), R12, R22 and/or R30 (methylene chloride) and a variety of other hydrocarbons.

A-Gas International, a leading refrigerant supplier to the UK, South Africa, Australia, US and Middle East markets, takes a proactive stance and believes the illegal trade in refrigerants poses a serious threat not just to businesses, but to end-users and the environment.

“Counterfeit refrigerants have potential financial repercussions for businesses in terms of lost business and severe penalties, but can also result in damage to equipment and in some cases physical harm to end-users, which could result in permanent injury or even death. The environmental impact should also not be underestimated,” says Jon Masters, A-Gas International’s managing director of Europe, Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

Suppliers like A-Gas rigorously implement a number of measures, including regular product testing and cylinder tracking to ensure safety in the supply chain and proactively raise awareness to ensure the risks are widely understood. Government agencies worldwide are also reinforcing their strategy by taking action to stem illegal activities. Yet global evidence shows the trade in illegal refrigerants is on the rise.

The net is tightening
The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) operates globally and carries out investigations into illegal refrigerant smuggling operations, but is increasingly concerned that the number of importers and ports of entry are difficult to monitor and ensure compliance.

The net is tightening and governments are taking action. Over the past three years seizures of HCFCs have increased and illegal consignments have been intercepted in the US, Asia and Europe. In the US, according to the EIA, a spate of HCFC seizures indicates the existence of a black market with the potential to rival that seen for CFCs (CFCs can still be used legally in a number of countries, not as virgin but as reclaim. There have been numerous prosecutions in Florida for HCFC smuggling or illegal import). In the last two years there have been several seizures. In July 2012 in the Canadian province of Manitoba, warnings were issued to ACR wholesalers and contractors when quantities of refrigerant were found being sold in disposable cylinders. Concern was also raised over the import of refrigerants and inappropriate labeling. The problem appears to have arisen from Canada’s open trade borders with the US, where non-refillable cylinders are still legal.

The following November it was reported that a Quebec-based company and its president were fined $37,200 for illegally importing 600 cylinders of R22 into Canada. The shipment was discovered in February 2011 when Environment Canada enforcement officers inspected cargo of cylinders from China. A month later, in Florida, a man plead guilty to knowingly importing approximately 15,640kg of illegal R22 into America.

In August 2012 it was announced that customs officers from Europe and central Asia were to receive awards for preventing the illegal/unnecessary shipment of 116 tonnes of refrigerants and other ozone-depleting substances. From July 2010 to August 2012, they reported 14 successful seizures of 72 pieces of equipment and 2990 refrigerant cylinders, containing more than 35 tonnes of ozone-depleting chemicals and mixtures.

Earlier this year, one of the UK’s refrigerant suppliers (Harp International) revealed it will be adding holograms to its cylinders and packaging in a bid to stop counterfeiters, though Harp’s main target is thought to be the Middle East, which has become a major hub for counterfeiting activities.

There have been further cases in Europe which illustrate how illegal trade can arise as a result of a phase-out. After the EU phase out of virgin HCFC’s at the end of 2009, demand for R22 to service existing equipment has often exceeded available supply from the use of recycled refrigerants, creating ideal conditions for a black market.

Is this a market that will expand as phase out’s continue? Consumption of CFCs has been banned worldwide since January 2010 and the challenges facing the industry include addressing the increasing trade in methyl bromide and HCFCs. Although usage controls and bans are already in place in many regions, methyl bromide will not be banned worldwide until 2015 and HCFCs from 2040.