What 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 symptoms.

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.

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
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • frostbite (liquid Freon)
  • cough
  • chemical burn to the skin
  • dizziness

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
  • seizures

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 1-800-222-1222.

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.

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
  • excitability
  • 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 chemicals

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:

  • lightheadedness
  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • agitation
  • nausea and vomiting
  • lethargy
  • muscle weakness
  • depressed reflexes
  • loss of sensation
  • unconsciousness

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
  • irritability
  • depression
  • psychosis
  • rapid, irregular heartbeat
  • lung damage
  • nerve damage
  • brain damage
  • death

Getting Help

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 www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.

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 addiction.

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 first time.

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 report.

Preventing Abuse

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 abuse.

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.

Workplace Safety

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.