THOSE WHO like what McDonald's does to food may not exactly love what it's done to the truth. Walk into the local Golden Arches and you're likely to find a placemat purporting to tell the "facts" about plastic foams and the role they play in destroying stratospheric ozone -- some of which bear about as much resemblance to the truth as a Chicken McNugget does to the real thing. The placemat says that McDonald's plastic-foam food containers are made without the use of CFCs, the family of chemicals that destroy the stratospheric ozone layer. The ozone layer filters out skin-blistering solar radiation. Already 3 to 5 percent of it has been lost to CFCs. And each spring CFCs ignite a chain reaction in the Antarctic sky which re-opens an ozone hole the size of North America. In fact, many of McDonald's containers are made with a CFC. It destroys ozone, but enough less than the ones previously used that the Environmental Protection Agency was willing to declare the renamed -- but not reformulated -- compound "technically not a CFC." What group renamed this CFC, and why, is unclear -- but it's plain that what's suffering is the truth. For the chemical is now what it always was: an ozone-destroyer. Indeed, the most troubling aspect of this otherwise almost laughable charade is that when powerful environmental and economic interests collide, the first victim is truth. The strange story behind McDonald's claim illustrates how easily fiction can be minced, shaped and reformed to resemble fact. It includes DuPont, America's largest chemical company as well as the inventor and world's largest maker of CFCs; the plastic-foam industry; McDonald's suppliers; the EPA; and, surprisingly, three major environmental groups: The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and Friends of the Earth. As a quid pro quo, the environmental trio entered into a vow of silence as the price of inducing the plastic-foam industry to quit using chemicals that would destroy even more ozone than the substances now in use. The placemat in question contains a large amount of text adorned with smiling Big Mac containers ("clamshells," they're called in the trade). A section boldly headlined "Facts About Foam" declares that "McDonald's foam packaging is manufactured without the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are thought to be harmful to the ozone layer." (McDonald's emphasis). This is not a lie, but it's certainly not the truth -- McTruth, maybe, but not the real thing. The story begins in 1987. Curtis Moore is an environmental writer and analyst who served for 11 years as counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. McDonald's had been under heavy pressure from grade-school boycotts, local environmental groups and members of Congress to junk its Big Mac clamshells and other food packages made with CFCs. The gases are used to blow tiny bubbles in the plastic, which give it shape, rigidity and the ability to keep "the hot side hot and the cold side cold," in the words of McDonald's. By mid-1987, there was only the barest scintilla of doubt left that CFCs had wreaked havoc with the ozone layer, which shields us from radiation so powerful that it can shatter molecules and explode unprotected cells on contact. And, while McDonald's and other users of plastic foams liked to characterize their contribution to ozone depletion as minimal, the amount of CFCs used in food packaging in the United States was roughly the same as that used in the compressors of home refrigerators -- about 5 percent of total domestic production. On Aug. 5, 1987, McDonald's announced that because there were "reasonable alternatives to possibly harmful CFCs" it was beginning a "prompt phase-out." "We required our suppliers to switch to a non-CFC blowing agent," says Terri Capatosto, director of media relations for McDonald's, "going to an 18-month phase-out to be completed by the end of 1988." This did not mean McDonald's was banning plastic foams, however, because there are other chemicals from which they can be made. Some of the company's suppliers, for example, use pentane, a widely employed blowing agent which destroys no ozone whatsoever. It is, however, explosive; so many manufacturers understandably preferred to continue using CFCs. Somewhere along the way, some group hit on a nifty solution: They simply changed the name of one CFC. Instead of continuing to call it CFC-22 as they had for a half-century, they re-named it "HCFC-22." Voila! They had their cake and ate it too. The rationale for this piece of verbal legerdemain is that CFC-22 is thought to deplete up to 95 percent less ozone than its most potent relatives, CFC-11 and -12. CFC-22 contains an atom of hydrogen, so it forms weaker chemical bonds than the pure chlorine and fluorine links in -11 and -12. It takes the enormous power of solar radiation in the stratosphere to shatter the -11 and -12 bonds -- which is why they destroy ozone at that level. Because the weaker -22 breaks down closer to earth, less of it reaches stratospheric levels. But some does. And to Rafe Pomerance, of the World Resources Institute, the continued use of CFC-22 for such foams is indefensible. "It's a greenhouse gas and an ozone depleter. We've already punched a hole through the Antarctic sky that's the size of North America. We don't need to keep adding to the problem, especially if McDonald's can get to zero," he said. Consumption of CFC-22 -- oops, HCFC-22 -- increased at an average of 4 percent a year even before it was utilized as a substitute for -11 or -12. Because of its hydrogen atom, it is not regulated by the EPA or listed in the Montreal Protocol roster of chemicals to be controlled. Consequently, its rate of use is bound to accelerate -- and with it the total amount of ozone which -22 destroys. That effect is not disputed. "CFC-22 and HCFC-22 are the same chemical and that chemical is capable of destroying ozone in the stratosphere," says Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. Even the leading manufacturer, DuPont, agrees. Says spokeswoman Kathy Forte, "22 HCFC and 22 CFC are the same." The term "HCFC" was not used publicly until Jan. 5, 1988, she says, and the name change was necessitated to "avoid confusion" because of CFC-22's hydrogen atom. That's nothing new. CFC-22 contained a hydrogen atom when the family of chemicals was inventoried in the 1930s. The hydrogen was still there in 1974 when scientists warned that CFCs -- including -22 -- destroyed ozone. And, when ozone destruction was confirmed in the 1980s, one of the culprits was CFC-22 -- hydrogen atom or no. It wasn't hydrogen content that changed. It was politics. "We were trying to get industries to change over, and the one which was most willing was the one that made garbage. It's a product that is useful for only 10 minutes in its lifetime," explained David Doniger, the lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council who spearheaded negotiations with the industry. "I didn't see that we had any leverage on them to say, 'You all ought to go to cardboard.' " So, he explained, the three environment groups agreed not to publicly criticize the foam-packaging industry for up to five years in exchange for an industry pledge to search for less ozone-destructive substitutes for -22 and, if they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, to adopt them. Meanwhile, foam manufacturers were wondering how to explain the use of HCFC-22. Soon they had an answer -- and from no less than the U.S. government. In a letter dated Jan. 27, 1988 and addressed to the plastic-foam industry's Washington-based trade group, the EPA Office of Air and Radiation sought to "clarify" the move to CFC-22: "Chemicals such as HCFC-22 contain hydrogen . . . . Thus HCFC-22 is not technically a CFC." Hence the wording on McDonald's placemat. Then on Feb. 16, 1989, came an announcement from the Foodservice & Packaging Institute, the industry trade group, that the manufacturers had "met their initial goal of eliminating the use of CFCs in food service products." Just as HCFC-22 is "not technically a CFC," such statements are only technically true -- and therein may lie the most dismal aspect of this otherwise petty chicanery. This is a time when many scientists believe that humanity's future hinges on our ability to make informed and correct ecological choices. To do that we need the truth. All of it.