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What Is Refrigerant Poisoning?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 18, 2021

Refrigerant is a solution used in air conditioners and refrigerators to promote cooling.

Risks of refrigerants include:

  • Toxicity
  • Flammability
  • Asphyxiation
  • Physical damage like burns‌

Understanding Refrigerant Poisoning

Refrigerant poisoning is also called: 

  • Coolant poisoning
  • Freon poisoning
  • Fluorinated hydrocarbon poisoning‌
  • Sudden sniffing death syndrome

Refrigerant is a chemical that comes in the form of a liquid or gas. While it is usually well-packaged to prevent the risk of harm or death, accidents do happen. If you inhale or ingest refrigerant of any kind, seek immediate emergency medical assistance. The dangers of refrigerant poisoning are serious.

Freon, which is often used in refrigerants and coolants, is colorless and smells like freshly cut grass. Freon describes several chemicals — including fluorine, carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, and bromine — that may be mixed.

Please understand that this article serves only to educate you on refrigerant poisoning. While there may be home remedies that can improve your symptoms and prevent damage, it is crucial that a medical professional examines you. If you have questions about the solution you inhaled or ingested, call 9-1-1 or poison control.

Acute refrigerant poisoning. When you suffer from acute poisoning, this means your refrigerant exposure is short-term. It may happen in a single incident and is often at a high concentration. Accidental exposure usually happens when your air conditioning or refrigeration system malfunctions, causing a leak.

Chronic refrigerant poisoning. Chronic toxicity happens when you are repeatedly exposed to refrigerant chemicals over a long period of time. It is common in careers where technicians work with machinery every day. If you work with heavy equipment that uses refrigerant, ensure that leak detectors and monitoring systems are working properly and fully.

Flammability of refrigerant. The solutions used in air conditioners and refrigerators are often made of gas and highly flammable. If you are near a heat source, the leaking refrigerant may ignite and explode. This can cause serious damage. Flammability is dangerous because refrigerant may be a clear vapor that you can’t see to identify.

Toxicity of refrigerant. Toxicity refers to the damage refrigerant may cause when it is ingested. Your refrigerant solution may have a label that tells you the exposure limits. While no exposure is considered safe, low levels of exposure may pose fewer health risks.

Symptoms of Refrigerant Poisoning

The symptoms of refrigerant poisoning depend on several factors, including:

  • Whether your exposure is long-term or short-term
  • The levels of exposure
  • If the solution was ingested or inhaled‌
  • If the solution spilled onto your skin

You may have a single sign of refrigerant poisoning or many symptoms at once. For chronic exposure, your symptoms may be mild at first and increase in severity over time. Signs you’re suffering from refrigerant poisoning include:

  • Swelling in your throat or sinuses
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe pain in your nose, throat, or sinuses
  • Burning sensation on your eyes, nose, ears, lips, or tongue
  • Vision loss 
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Vomiting or diarrhea 
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Blood in your vomit or stool 
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fainting or feeling weak‌
  • Skin irritation, including burns or holes developing 

Treating Refrigerant Poisoning

Once you identify the refrigerant leak, move away from the area immediately. If possible, go outside or seek fresh air. When you call 9-1-1 or poison control, include as many details about the incident as possible.

Information to share includes:

  • Age, weight, and overall health of the poisoned person
  • Condition following exposure
  • Name of the refrigerant, including ingredients and solution strength if possible
  • Whether it was inhaled, ingested, or both‌
  • An approximate amount ingested or inhaled‌

Once you reach the emergency room or doctor’s office, a medical professional will monitor your vitals signs, including: 

  • Temperature‌
  • Pulse
  • Breathing‌
  • Blood pressure

Monitoring is important because dips in vital statistics may be a sign that your condition is worsening rather than improving.

Treatment options include:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids through a vein to boost your immune system and repair damage
  • Medications to treat your symptoms
  • A tube inserted into your stomach through your mouth to remove any poison in your system 
  • An antidote to counteract the poison in your system 
  • Cleaning your skin to remove the excess refrigerant and prevent infection
  • Surgical removal of burned skin‌
  • Breathing tube or oxygen to increase your oxygen levels

‌Your condition only worsens the longer you put off receiving care. Immediate medical attention reduces the damage you may have. Without care, refrigerant poisoning may be fatal after 72 hours or lead to permanent brain damage.

Preventing Refrigerant Poisoning

Check your refrigerators and air conditioning systems for leaks. If you notice unusual smells, seek a professional to check for leaks. If you have to change out a refrigerant solution, be sure you follow the instructions exactly.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Freon Gas."

Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Freon: chemical compound."

Mount Sinai: “Refrigerant poisoning.”

United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Refrigerant Safety.”

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