Refrigerant poisoning can occur if a person inhales or consumes the chemicals — also known by the brand name of Freon — from cooling appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners.
Accidental refrigerant poisoning is rare but can occur when a person works directly with cooling chemicals. Poisoning is more common in people who use the substance as a recreational drug.
Mild exposure to Freon in a well-ventilated area is usually not serious, including having a small amount on the skin or having a localized leak in the home. However, if a person notices symptoms of refrigerant poisoning, they should contact their doctor or emergency service immediately.
In this article, learn about the symptoms of refrigerant poisoning, as well as how to treat and prevent it happening.
Refrigerant poisoning happens when a person inhales chemicals used in cooling appliances.
Certain appliances, such as refrigerators, air conditioners, and freezers, contain chemicals called fluorinated hydrocarbons. People often refer to these chemicals as Freon, which is a leading brand name.
Freon is a dangerous substance. This almost odorless and tasteless gas can cause severe symptoms if a person inhales too much at once.
Because refrigerants cut off the oxygen supply, some people use the gas to get high. This is very dangerous, as breathing in refrigerants in high concentrations or large amounts can lead to death.
If a person suspects they have inhaled refrigerants accidentally, they should contact the emergency services immediately.
Symptoms of refrigerant poisoning vary based on exposure. If exposure happens accidentally due to a leaking appliance in a well-ventilated area, poisoning is not likely to occur.
Accidental poisoning is rare. Most cases of poisoning occur due to intentional exposure when someone wants to get high, or they inhale the gas in an enclosed space.
Symptoms of mild to moderate refrigerant poisoning may include:
- irritation of eyes, ears, and throat
- frostbite if exposed to quickly expanding gas or liquid coolant
- chemical burn on the skin
Severe refrigerant poisoning can cause symptoms, including:
- vomiting blood
- breathing difficulties
- loss of consciousness
- bleeding or fluid buildup in the lungs
- feeling of the food pipe burning
- irregular heartbeat
- coma or sudden death
The most common cause of refrigerant poisoning is substance abuse. Refrigerants are easy to obtain because of their low cost and use in many appliances.
A person may use a rag, a small container, bag, or an appliance soaked with refrigerant chemicals to get high.
Freon is one of several common inhalants used by teens and adults with the aim of getting a high from the fumes. Inhaled substances usually have short-lasting effects, so it is not uncommon for a person to inhale several deep breaths in a row to extend the high. Taking multiple breaths also substantially increases the chance of causing refrigerant poisoning.
Though not as common, it is possible to get refrigerant poisoning from accidental exposure. This is most likely to occur if a person works in a facility that uses refrigerants.
Accidental exposure may also occur from working on products that contain the chemicals.
It is not likely that a person will develop poisoning from a leaking home appliance, assuming it is in a well-ventilated area.
It is vital to call the emergency service or Poison Control in the United States, which runs a 24-hour telephone guidance service for poisoning emergencies, if a person is showing signs of refrigerant poisoning.
If possible, a bystander should help a person move to a well-ventilated area or outdoors where they can get fresh air while waiting for the ambulance.
In the emergency room, doctors will monitor a person’s heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.
Direct treatment will attempt to fix any internal or external damage from the poisoning.
Treatments the doctor may use include:
- medication to treat symptoms or internal damage
- oxygen through a breathing tube
- removal or treatment of any burned skin
- removal of liquid from the stomach, using a tube if ingested
There are currently no drugs available to treat the poisoning directly.
Also, doctors do not have a formal way to diagnose the condition, but they will administer treatment if they expect or can confirm exposure to refrigerants.
Preventing refrigerant poisoning focuses on stopping or preventing drug abuse.
People should secure any appliances that contain refrigerants and lock up refrigerants that are in storage so that they are not accessible unintentionally.
It is also crucial for parents, teens, and professionals who work with children to recognize the signs of inhalant abuse.
Signs of inhalant abuse include:
- sudden weight loss
- watery eyes
- seeming to be drunk
- slurred speech
- loss of coordination
- breath or clothing that smells of chemicals
- hidden signs of abuse, such as chemical-soaked rags or empty spray cans
- stains on a person’s face, hands, or clothing
Being educated about the dangers of refrigerant poisoning can also help stop people from inhaling coolant chemicals for the first time.
Even one-time use of coolant chemicals can cause death. Other complications that may occur due to inhaling coolant chemicals include:
- damage to the lungs, nerves, brain, or other vital organs
- weight loss
- loss of strength or coordination
- irregular and rapid heartbeat
If a person suspects someone they know is abusing refrigerants, they can call the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Alternatively, they may also visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov for more information.
To help prevent accidental poisoning, a person or company working with refrigerants can take steps to make their workplace safer.
People working with refrigerants should only do so in a well-ventilated area. They should also take precautionary measures to avoid exposure to the skin.
It is important for people working with refrigerants to following all guidelines and procedures. They should receive training on how to safely handle chemicals before using them.
Deliberately inhaling refrigerants is very dangerous. It is possible for someone to die even if it is their first time using the substance. Damage to the lungs or brain can be irreversible.
If a person seeks medical attention immediately after accidental exposure, they have a better chance of recovering.
A person using refrigerants for recreational purposes can seek help from a doctor or drug abuse specialist.