Refrigerant Poisoning

Written by Elea Carey | Published on August 29, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Refrigerant Poisoning?

Refrigerant poisoning happens when someone is exposed to the chemicals used to cool appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners. 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, may cut off vital oxygen to your lungs and cells.

Limited exposure—for example, a spill on your skin or breathing near an open container—is only mildly harmful. However, care should be taken to avoid contact with these types of chemicals. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), even small amounts can cause symptoms. These could include:

  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat
  • heart palpitations

Inhaling these fumes on purpose to “get high” poses a dangerous health risk. Regularly inhaling high concentrations of Freon can cause breathing problems, fluid buildup in the lungs, organ damage, and sudden death (OEHHA, 2003).

If you suspect poisoning, call 911 or the National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Recreational Use: Getting High on Refrigerant

When people abuse refrigerant, they often inhale it from an appliance, a container, a bag with the neck held tightly closed, or from a rag. This is commonly referred to as “huffing.”

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, people who abuse these types of chemicals experience a high similar to that caused by drinking alcohol, along with lightheadedness and hallucinations (DrugFree.com).

What Are the Signs of Abuse?

Chronic abusers might have a mild rash around the nose and mouth. Other signs include:

  • watery eyes
  • slurred speech
  • drunken appearance
  • excitability
  • sudden weight loss

What Are the Health Complications of Abuse?

Regular abuse can result in:

  • weight loss
  • loss of strength or coordination
  • irritability
  • depression
  • psychosis
  • rapid, irregular heartbeat
  • lung damage
  • nerve damage
  • brain damage
  • death

The same chemicals used to cool appliances are sometimes used in industrial-strength cleaners and degreaser. These chemicals attach easily to fat molecules. This causes them to be stored in the fatty tissue of abusers over time, if huffed into the body. With repeated exposure, the buildup of poison can damage vital organs, including your liver and brain. The buildup can also create a physical dependence on these chemicals.

What Are the Symptoms of Refrigerant Poisoning?

Mild exposure is generally harmless, and poisoning is rare except in cases of abuse or exposure in a confined space. According to the Toxicology Data Network (TDN), symptoms of mild to moderate poisoning include:

  • irritation of the eyes, ears, and throat
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • frostbite
  • cough
  • chemical burn to the skin

Symptoms of severe poisoning include:

  • fluid buildup or bleeding in the lungs
  • decreased mental status
  • difficult, labored breathing
  • irregular heartbeat
  • loss of consciousness
  • seizures (TDN, 2002)

How Is Refrigerant Poisoning Treated?

If you’re with someone you think has poisoning, quickly move the victim to fresh air to avoid further complications from prolonged exposure. Once the person has been moved, call 911 or the National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisoning will be treated in a hospital emergency room. Doctors will monitor the affected person’s breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse. Various treatments will be used to treat internal and external injuries, including:

  • giving oxygen through a breathing tube
  • drugs and medication to treat symptoms as needed
  • gastric lavage—inserting a tube into the stomach to rinse it and empty its contents
  • surgical removal of burned or damaged skin

In the case of inhalant abuse, hospitalization in a drug treatment center may be necessary.

What 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. According to the National Institutes of Health, those who survive past 72 hours have the best chance of making a full recovery (NIH, 2011).

Preventing Accidental Refrigerant Poisoning

Inhaling chemicals to get high is very common in the United States because such chemicals are legal and easy to find. According to a study conducted by the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, one in five children have tried inhalants before entering the eighth grade (NIPC, 2012).

Limiting access by keeping containers out of reach of children and attaching a lock to the appliances that use these types of chemicals can help prevent abuse. School and community-based education programs have shown great reduction in abuse.

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