Trained as a pulmonary physician, Dr. Robert Meyer never foresaw protecting the ozone layer as a driving force in his life’s work.
But over the last 20 years – Meyer, now the director of the Virginia Center for Translational and Regulatory Sciences and an associate professor of public health at the University of Virginia – has contributed to just that.
Before arriving at UVA, Meyer worked for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a medical reviewer for new pulmonary products. In 1996, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to the FDA seeking help with an effort to protect and restore the ozone layer, Meyer found himself in the midst of a large, but crucial, undertaking.
An international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, passed in 1987 and effective in 1989, was seeking to eliminate the production of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are organic compounds that eat away at the Earth’s ozone layer. Depletion of the ozone layer results in increased ultraviolet radiation on our planet’s surface – one of the biggest culprits of skin cancer.
“Everybody realizes what a problem skin cancer and sun exposure has become,” Meyer said. “Being able to achieve a world where, in the future, we’re not so susceptible to these issues is very important.”
CFCs were used in items such as air conditioners and cleaning solvents, but eliminating CFC-powered, metered-dose inhalers, used chiefly by asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients, was the final piece of the Montreal Protocol that needed to be implemented.
“The problem with inhalers is that they are entirely designed to emit gas,” Meyer said. “So if you spray an asthma inhaler, more than 99 percent of what comes out is propellant. The CFCs reach the stratosphere and they have a very long half-life of up to 100 years, so they were degrading the ozone layer.”
Meyer was tasked with spearheading the writing of the rules and regulations that would put the phase-out of inhalers containing CFCs into effect. In addition to his role within the FDA, Meyer was also appointed a technical expert on the United Nations Environment Program’s Medical Aerosols Technical Options Committee.
“I was working to make the regulations work and evaluate new, alternative medicines while also advising the U.N. on how to do it safely from a global perspective,” Meyer said.
That required the cooperation of numerous players. “It involved a lot of decisions on the part of companies, patients and payers for health care, including the U.S. government,” he said. “We had to write regulations, but also make sure that when alternative medicines came out, they were safe and effective.”
Another member of the UVA faculty, Professor of Public Policy Randall Lutter, was also involved in the Montreal Protocol’s implementation. Lutter brought his expertise to the table to perform an economic analysis of the proposed legislations.
“To solve these environmental issues, you need good scientists and good academics, but you also need to understand regulation and economic consequences,” Meyer said. “It takes a lot of disciplines.”
The United Nations Environment Program recently announced that by the end of 2016, the worldwide phase-out will be completely achieved. Patients who rely on medication to treat their asthma can now use inhalers that contain either hydrofluoroalkanes or dry powder, neither of which are ozone-depleting chemicals. Meyer said 170 countries around the globe were committed to the Montreal Protocol, and that its success will benefit people and the environment for years to come.
In June, atmospheric scientists reported that a hole in the ozone layer has begun to close, attributing the improvement to the CFC ban.
“[The CFC ban] was affected safely, respecting the patients while also working in a global construct to preserve and restore the ozone layer,” Meyer said. “It’s an exceedingly important step from a public health standpoint and a demonstration that the globe can come together and tackle a problem. That’s really powerful.”