Is Refrigerant Poisoning?
Refrigerant poisoning happens when someone is exposed to the
chemicals used to cool appliances. Refrigerant contains chemicals called
fluorinated hydrocarbons (often referred to by a common brand name, “Freon”).
Freon is a tasteless, mostly odorless gas. When it is deeply inhaled, it can cut
off vital oxygen to your cells and lungs.
Limited exposure — for example, a spill on your skin or breathing
near an open container — is only mildly harmful. However, you should try to
avoid all contact with these types of chemicals. Even small amounts can cause
Inhaling these fumes on purpose to “get high” can be very
dangerous. It can be fatal even the very first time you do it. Regularly
inhaling high concentrations of Freon can cause issues such as:
- breathing problems
- fluid buildup in the lungs
- organ damage
- sudden death
If you suspect poisoning, call 911 or the National Poison Control
Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
Are the Symptoms of Refrigerant Poisoning?
Mild exposure to refrigerants is generally harmless. Poisoning is
rare except in cases of abuse or exposure in a confined space. Symptoms of mild
to moderate poisoning include:
- irritation of the eyes, ears, and throat
- frostbite (liquid Freon)
- chemical burn to the skin
Symptoms of severe poisoning include:
- fluid buildup or bleeding in the lungs
- burning sensation in the esophagus
- vomiting up blood
- decreased mental status
- difficult, labored breathing
- irregular heartbeat
- loss of consciousness
Is Refrigerant Poisoning Treated?
If you are with someone you think has poisoning, quickly move the
victim to fresh air to avoid further problems from prolonged exposure. Once the
person has been moved, call 911 or the National Poison Control Hotline at
Poisoning is treated in the hospital emergency room. Doctors will
monitor the affected person’s breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse.
A doctor may use many different types of methods to treat internal and external
injuries. These include:
- giving oxygen through a breathing tube
- drugs and medication to treat symptoms
- gastric lavage — inserting a tube into the
stomach to rinse it and empty its contents
- surgical removal of burned or damaged skin
There are no medical tests available to diagnose Freon exposure.
There are also no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to treat the
poisoning. In the case of inhalant abuse, you may need to be hospitalized in a
drug treatment center.
Use: Getting High on Refrigerant
Refrigerant abuse is commonly called “huffing.” The chemical is often
inhaled from an appliance, a container, a rag, or a bag with the neck held
tightly closed. The products are inexpensive, easy to find, and easy to hide.
The chemicals produce a pleasurable feeling by depressing the
central nervous system. According to the National
Institute on Drug Abuse, it’s similar to the feeling caused by drinking
alcohol or taking sedatives, along with lightheadedness and hallucinations. The
high only lasts a few minutes, so people who use these inhalants often inhale
repeatedly to make the feeling last longer.
What Are the Signs of Abuse?
Chronic abusers of inhalants might have a mild rash around the
nose and mouth. Other signs include:
- watery eyes
- slurred speech
- drunken appearance
- sudden weight loss
- chemical smells on the clothing or breath
- paint stains on the clothing, face, or hands
- lack of coordination
- hidden empty spray cans or rags soaked in
What Are the Health Complications of Abuse?
Along with a rapid “high,” and a feeling of euphoria, the
chemicals found in these types of inhalants produce many negative effects on
the body. These can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle weakness
- depressed reflexes
- loss of sensation
Even first-time users can experience devastating consequences. A
condition known as “sudden sniffing death” can occur in healthy people the very first time they inhale
refrigerant. The highly concentrated chemicals can lead to irregular and rapid
heart rhythms. This can then lead to heart failure within minutes. Death can
also occur due to asphyxiation, suffocation, seizures, or choking. You may also
get into a fatal accident if you drive while intoxicated.
Some of the chemicals found in inhalants stick around in the body
for a long period of time. They attach easily to fat molecules and can be
stored in the fatty tissue. The buildup of poison can damage vital organs,
including your liver and brain. The buildup can also create a physical
dependence (addiction). Regular or long-term abuse may also result in:
- weight loss
- loss of strength or coordination
- rapid, irregular heartbeat
- lung damage
- nerve damage
- brain damage
Inhalant use among adolescents has been declining steadily over the
past two decades. The
National Institute on Drug Abuse found that roughly 5 percent of eighth
graders reported using inhalants in 2014. This figure is down from 8 percent in
2009, and nearly 13 percent in 1995 when inhalant abuse was at its peak.
Call Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator from the National
Institute on Drug Abuse at 1-800-662-HELP if you need information or advice
about treatment, or if you are addicted and want to stop now. You can also visit
Addiction treatment is available for you or a loved one.
Medically trained staff in an inpatient rehab center can help with the
addiction. They can also address any underlying issues that may have led to the
Is the Outlook For Refrigerant Poisoning?
Recovery depends on how quickly you get medical help. Huffing
refrigerant chemicals can result in significant brain and lung damage. The
effects vary from person to person. This damage is not reversible even after
the person stops abusing inhalants.
Sudden death can occur with refrigerant abuse, even the very
Accidental Refrigerant Poisoning
Inhaling chemicals to get high is common in the United States
because such chemicals are legal and easy to find. Inhalant use among
adolescents has been declining over the years. However, nearly 40,000
adolescents use inhalants on any given day, according to a 2014
To help prevent abuse, limit access to these chemicals by keeping
containers out of reach of children and attaching a lock to the appliances that
use them. It’s also very important to educate adolescents, parents, teachers, doctors,
and other service providers about the dangers and health risks of inhalant use.
School and community-based education programs have shown great reduction in
Communicate with your children about the risks of using drugs and
alcohol. It can help to have an “open door” policy for these conversations. Don’t
pretend that the risks don’t exist or assume that your child couldn’t possibly
do drugs. Be sure to reiterate that huffing can lead to death the very first
time it’s done.
You should be sure to understand and observe all safety
procedures if you work with refrigerators or other types of cooling appliances.
Attend all trainings and wear protective clothing or a mask, if necessary, to
minimize contact with the chemicals.