Production and import of new chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) will end in a few months. Not so the debate on whether this result is a culmination of the prudent actions taken by 150 countries around the globe to avoid the possibility of ecological disaster or, as a few view it, simply the final destination for the big, green bandwagon onto which we blindly jumped.

I, for one, will leave that debate to scientists, policy makers and conspiracy buffs, and deal with practical matters. We are here now. And it makes more sense to me to move forward than to go backward.

The automotive industry has moved forward to effectively and efficiently address the transition to nonozone depleting refrigerants in mobile air conditioning systems. At no small cost the mobile air conditioning industry has reinvented itself. Automakers, chemical companies, parts and system manufacturers, tool and equipment suppliers, service providers all have played a major role in dealing with the challenge of this transition and helping to achieve the environmental goal.

But in practical terms the real measure of success in this effort is the impact on the consumer, and we won't know the full effect of this transition on the motoring public for some time to come. Clearly consumers are paying more for cool air in their automobiles. When a vehicle is purchased or serviced, the consumer is sharing in the cost of this undertaking.

I am not aware of any formal survey of consumer opinion on this issue, but my own contact with the motoring public and anecdotal evidence from those in the service sector suggest that consumers have a strong concern for the environment and are taking their share of the costs for its protection in stride.

And there is good news for consumers. Because of conservation and recycling, refrigerant for service of CFC systems still is available and apparently will remain so for some time to come. This helps to avoid early obsolescence of equipment and provides consumers the least-costly service option.

There is also good news regarding the retrofitting of CFC systems to R134a, the non-ozone depleting refrigerant that has been approved for new and retrofitted air conditioning systems. Several years ago there was concern over the cost of retrofitting a system. Application of knowledge gained through extensive fleet testing has now reduced the cost of some retrofits to between $100 and $200 over the cost of system repairs.

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. Flammable refrigerants, which pose special risks when used in mobile air conditioning systems, have been introduced into a large enough fleet of vehicles to make them a real concern.

The regulatory process has finally caught up with two such refrigerants, OZ-12 and HC-12a, which have now been declared unacceptable for use in mobile air conditioning systems by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is now illegal to use these refrigerants in mobile air conditioning systems, and the EPA has said that all flammable substitutes are unacceptable for this use. However, many consumers may unknowingly have flammable refrigerant in their vehicles, and the service industry must invest in refrigerant identification equipment to protect consumers and technicians, and to prevent contamination of other vehicle air conditioning systems.

And flammable refrigerants are only part of the problem. Refrigerants have been illegally imported - some not produced to acceptable level of purity, others perhaps used and not reprocessed at all - and have found their way into the marketplace.

There is added concern about used refrigerants that are reclaimed in this country. Although there is no reason to indict the refrigerant reclamation industry as a whole, its members are currently allowed to self-certify their operations and the purity of their product. This sets the stage for unscrupulous operators to cut corners and distribute inferior products, contributing to refrigerant contamination.

MACS Worldwide is in the process of petitioning the EPA to provide for independent inspections of imported refrigerants random inspections of the product from companies certified to reclaim refrigerant in this country, and strict labeling of containers to detail content purity levels.

When contamination occurs it is not limited to a single system, but will perhaps damage recovery/recycling equipment used in service, and just as likely be spread to other vehicles.

So there is good news and there is bad news, but all in all the mobile air conditioning industry is better positioned now to handle the end of CFC production in this country than it was one year ago, and light years ahead of where we were two and three years ago.